Anthrax threat touches Supreme Court

Justices move operation after traces are found off-site at mail center

October 27, 2001|By Tom Pelton and Jonathan Bor | Tom Pelton and Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Anthrax struck at yet another government institution in Washington yesterday, prompting the Supreme Court to close even as health officials continued to overhaul their strategy for responding to the widening threat posed by the deadly bacteria.

The nation's highest court closed about noon, and employees were offered tests and antibiotics after anthrax was found on a filter at its mail warehouse in Forestville, Prince George's County.

Investigators did not detect any bacteria in the court building. But as a precaution, the justices will take up temporary quarters Monday in a D.C. Circuit Court building, a spokeswoman said.

Authorities also found traces of anthrax yesterday in mailrooms serving the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters in Langley, Va., and the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Montgomery County.

Spores have been discovered as well in the offices of three congressman in the Longworth House office building, congressional officials told the Associated Press last night.

The spores were found in the offices of Reps. John Baldacci, a Maine Democrat; Rush D. Holt, a New Jersey Democrat; and Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican, on the sixth and seventh floors, said Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.

Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described spores found in the offices as trace amounts. "We are not concerned about a significant health risk," he said.

The building, which houses dozens of lawmakers' offices, has been closed since Oct. 18; mail deliveries throughout the Capitol complex were halted before that.

"Who would imagine that they would turn the U.S. mail system into a weapon of terror?" President Bush said yesterday. "We are adjusting quickly to the new realities that we face."

A top health official, meanwhile, suggested that a second - or even several - anthrax-laced letters had been sent to Washington agencies, in addition to the letter received by Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he believed the illnesses and building contamination in the capital area could not all have come from a single letter.

"There are probably multiple mailings that have gone out," he said. "There are probably several places in the federal government that have been deemed targets."

The source of the letters is still unclear, with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer saying yesterday that the anthrax probably came from someone with a Ph.D. in microbiology working in a well-supplied laboratory.

Whether that lab was run by a foreign government or was operating in the United States, "There is no way of knowing," he said.

Nationally, the number of confirmed infections reached 13, all linked to the media or the mail, all in Florida, New York, New Jersey or metropolitan Washington.

Federal and state health officials, once conservative about distributing antibiotics, are now passing them out to more than 15,000 government workers, postal employees and others.

The CDC recommended this week that antibiotics be given to all mailroom employees in federal agencies that received mail from the anthrax-contaminated Brentwood mail center in the District of Columbia.

Maryland officials went even further, offering 10-day doses of antibiotics to mailroom workers of more than 25 private businesses that also received mail from the Washington center.

Yesterday, the CDC also urged vaccinating disease investigators, decontamination workers and possibly some postal employees against anthrax - a preventive measure until now reserved almost exclusively for soldiers.

In New York, meanwhile, a postal union threatened to sue to force the closure of a huge Manhattan mail-processing plant where four machines have been contaminated with anthrax.

"Close the facility, test the people, clean it up and send people back when it's safe," said Louis Nikolaidis, attorney for the New York chapter of the American Postal Workers Union.

About 200 postal centers on the East Coast are being inspected for traces of anthrax, Postal Service officials said. They defended their decision to keep the New York mail-sorting center open, saying health experts had advised that the contamination was limited and posed no threat to workers elsewhere in the building.

The unexpected appearance of anthrax in a growing number of buildings and postal workers has challenged old theories about anthrax. Before this week, officials restricted antibiotics to people who had anthrax spores on their bodies or in places where they worked.

Dr. Elin Gursky, a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, said the changing of strategies is not evidence of bumbling, but of an intelligent evolution.

"We have almost no experience dealing with this kind of outbreak," said Gursky. "So we are learning as we go along. This whole situation is still unfolding, and we will be continually revising our guidelines as it continues to unfold."

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