Officials widen hunt for anthrax

Daschle letter spores are found to be highly concentrated

`Confirms worst suspicions'

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

October 26, 2001|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Investigators offered new details about the anthrax used in the deadly mail attacks yesterday, as the bacteria sickened a State Department mail worker and federal officials widened the hunt for contamination to hundreds of mailrooms and post offices along the East Coast.

Test results from the spores mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle "confirmed our worst suspicions," Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said yesterday. The bacteria were the most concentrated and highly refined of the samples linked to the attacks in Washington, New York and Florida. Spores found in a New York Post letter, in contrast, were as chunky as "Purina dog chow" under the microscope, one expert said.

"Clearly, we are up against a shadow enemy," Ridge said at a White House briefing, "people who have no regard for human life who are determined to murder innocent people."

The toxic trail of bacteria leading from a contaminated Washington mail facility expanded yesterday to a new area postal facility. A State Department employee who works at an off-site mailroom in Sterling, Va., has inhaled anthrax, the most lethal form of the disease, Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday.

The 59-year-old man, who worked on the receiving dock, is being treated at Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Va.

Also, a test for anthrax in a mailroom in the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring came back positive yesterday, said Charles Dasey, spokesman for U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. The institute, which doesn't care for patients, is three miles from the hospital at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dasey said the mailroom at Fort Detrick in Frederick which exchanges mail with the institute, also was being tested.

Like many government mailrooms in the Washington area, the Sterling station receives its mail from the now-quarantined Brentwood sorting facility. After learning of the employee's illness yesterday, the State Department shut down mail deliveries as a precaution. Testing and treatment of workers were under way.

The number of Americans examined or prescribed antibiotics for anthrax exposure since the attacks began last month reached about 10,000 yesterday. Three people have died, all from the inhaled form of the disease, and 12 other cases of both inhaled and less serious cutaneous anthrax have been confirmed.

With so many hospitals and agencies involved, and some places using different definitions for suspected cases, the human casualties of the attack have proven difficult to track. At hospitals in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, dozens of patients have been evaluated for suspicion of anthrax. Ten have suspicious symptoms, while another 23 have a clinical illness, but their conditions are most likely not related to anthrax, according to Washington officials.

In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital admitted a truck driver who has a skin lesion that suggests anthrax. GBMC discharged two patients yesterday and admitted another, a 51-year-old male postal worker.

Doctors treating the rare disease were given new guidelines yesterday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised physicians to treat inhaled anthrax with a cocktail of up to three antibiotics, including Cipro. Previously, treatment consisted of only a single antibiotic.

As Washington leaders moved to reassure a shaken city by reopening two Capitol Hill office buildings, public health officials were struggling to determine how widely anthrax had spread through the U.S. postal system.

Federal officials announced yesterday that they were expanding testing for contamination to all government mailrooms in Washington, additional private area businesses that receive bulk mail and 200 post offices from Washington to New York.

It was unclear if testing would be performed in the Baltimore area. Postal officials said Tuesday that environmental testing was planned at the Fayette Street post office, the Calvert Street annex and a Frederick facility. But officials said yesterday that they knew of no plans for those stations. In New York, anthrax was found yesterday on four mail-sorting machines at a Manhattan processing station that handles millions of parcels daily, the Postal Service said.

Other anthrax hot spots turned up in Washington yesterday. Anthrax spores were found in several new areas of the Hart office building on Capitol Hill, including an air conditioning filter, a stairwell and a freight elevator. Daschle announced that one wing of the building would be sealed off indefinitely, a move expected to affect at least a dozen or so of the 100 senators with offices there.

The challenge to public health officials is figuring out how to seal off the contaminated area while enabling staffers to safely occupy the rest. Anthrax spores in Daschle's letter were a little more than a micron wide, a size that would allow them to slip through most standard filters. There are 25,000 microns in an inch.

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