Contaminated mail brings with it a grim education

As perpetrators elude investigators, impact of bacteria is far-reaching

War On Terrorism

October 28, 2001|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

Nearly six weeks after deadly anthrax was first dropped in the U.S. mail, federal investigators appear to have made little progress in finding the perpetrators, but the nation has learned how much damage a handful of bacteria can do.

With the evacuation of the U.S. Supreme Court building Friday for the first time in its history, biological terror had succeeded in disrupting all three branches of the federal government. Three people are dead, at least 10 more are sick from anthrax and thousands of others have been put on antibiotics. Buildings have been evacuated in powder scares and hoaxes worldwide.

"There are a lot of people in the government who didn't know as much about anthrax as they thought they did," said Richard Spertzel, a former United Nations biological weapons inspector in Iraq and longtime U.S. Army biodefense specialist.

Spertzel said yesterday that investigators have apparently not significantly narrowed their hunt. Questions remain whether the bioterrorists are American or foreign, and whether they concocted the dangerous anthrax powder themselves or obtained it from another nation's bioweapons program.

He said officials erred in not recognizing more quickly the grave threat the anthrax posed. "From the beginning, there was an attempt to minimize what was happening," he said, noting that federal officials initially speculated that the first victim, Florida photographer Bob Stevens, might have picked up the bacteria from a natural outdoor source.

Despite the slow response, Spertzel said, "We've learned a hell of a lot about what this stuff can do."

In response to fears that anthrax might have traveled widely through the mail, the U.S. Postal Service said it would expand testing for contamination beyond the known sites in Washington, New York, New Jersey and Florida to 30 mail sorting and distribution centers as far west as Arizona. An additional 200 sites nationwide will be selected for random testing, the Postal Service said.

The Princeton, N.J., post office closed yesterday after anthrax spores were found there. New York City health officials said they will investigate the death Oct. 10 of a postal worker initially attributed to natural causes to see whether anthrax might have been involved.

About 68 tons of government mail were trucked to Lima, Ohio, for sterilization using electron beams ordinarily used on hospital equipment. The U.S. Postal Service signed a $40 million contract to purchase eight of the electron-beam devices to sanitize the mail.

Supreme Court spokeswoman Kathleen L. Arberg said 400 court employees and contractors were given antibiotics by yesterday afternoon. "We feel like we've gotten almost everybody," she said.

The Supreme Court workers were given doxycycline, which the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending to prevent overuse of ciprofloxacin, or Cipro, the antibiotic most heavily used in the medical response. Doctors say the anthrax that has been found can be treated with several common antibiotics.

Meanwhile, environmental investigators renewed their search for contamination inside the court, though none has been found.

The evacuation of the court building Friday for the first time since it opened in 1935 was prompted by the discovery of anthrax spores on an air filter at a Prince George's County warehouse being used to inspect the court's mail.

The justices will hear arguments tomorrow in a federal court building a few blocks away, Arberg said, "and then we'll take it day by day."

Testing on Capitol Hill on Friday found anthrax in the offices of three members of the House of Representatives, likely prolonging the time necessary to decontaminate congressional offices. Anthrax has also been discovered in an off-site facility that handles White House mail, and workers there are being treated.

In Maryland, teams from the state Department of the Environment gathered samples yesterday from mailrooms serving Empower Baltimore and W.R. Grace & Co. in Baltimore and Riggs National Bank in Prince George's County, said J.B. Hanson, a spokesman for the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Test results will be available in three to five days, he said.

Nineteen Maryland mailrooms have been checked because they received mail from the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, where two workers died and two more were sickened by inhalational anthrax.

The burial of one of the postal workers, Joseph P. Curseen Jr., 47, of Clinton, was held yesterday. A funeral for the other worker, Thomas Morris Jr., 55, of Suitland, was Friday.

Workers in mailrooms linked to Brentwood can call their local health departments to receive medical advice and antibiotics, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.

Employees of federal government mailrooms in Baltimore can receive antibiotics today from noon to 5 p.m. at 211 East 25th St., Beilenson said.

Anyone in Baltimore seeking advice on whether and where to get antibiotics can call 410-396-4438 weekdays, he said.

Beilenson said the work of local health department staff statewide has been "phenomenal. It should give comfort [to] the residents of the state that, in case something else happens, we're prepared to deal with it."

But the testing and treatment might be only the beginning. Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, Washington's chief health officer, said Friday that treatment should be offered to workers at all of the estimated 2,000 to 4,000 commercial and government mailrooms that receive mail directly from the Brentwood sorting facility.

Those mailrooms are in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, said Jack Pannell, a spokesman for Walks.

Spertzel, the former U.N. weapons inspector, said that, until investigators make more progress in tracking down those who mailed the anthrax, there can be no confidence the attacks are over.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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