Postal Worker Illnesses, Deaths Linked to Anthrax

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 22, 2001 (ENS) - Two postal workers in the nation's capitol have been hospitalized with inhalation anthrax - the most dangerous form of the disease - and two others have died under what are being termed "suspicious circumstances." The employees all worked at the Brentwood mail distribution center, which processes mail for the U.S. Congress - including a letter bearing a virulent form of anthrax which was sent to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

carrier

Letter carriers and other postal workers are being called the latest soldiers in the nation's war on terrorism (Two photos courtesy National Association of Letter Carriers)
The two dead postal workers were seen by their doctors over the weekend, said Governor Tom Ridge, director of the new Office of Homeland Defense. Both experienced "respiratory complications and became critically ill," Ridge said, and both passed away today.

"Their deaths are likely due to anthrax," Ridge said, although that diagnosis has yet to be confirmed. "It is very clear that their symptoms are suspicious."

The U.S. Postal Service is now treating more than 2,000 employees who could have been exposed to anthrax with antibiotics.

Saying there is a "strong suspicion" that the two workers died from anthrax, Postmaster General Jack Potter said "we will proceed as though anthrax was involved."

"We are shaken by the thought of terrorists using the U.S. mail for their evil," Potter added, noting that the two employees, "died serving their country."

express mail

The Brentwood employees who have contracted inhalation anthrax worked with express mail letters and packages
While test results are still pending on the two dead workers, two other Brentwood workers are confirmed to have inhalation anthrax, and are now undergoing aggressive treatment with antibiotics.

Potter noted that the U.S. Postal Service is "working very hard to educate America" on how to deal with suspicious letters or packages. The Postal Service will be sending every household, postal mailbox and military address a postcard next week, detailing what signs to look for in mail that might contain anthrax spores.

The Postal Service is also sending instructions and posters to every large mailroom in the nation. The U.S. Postal Inspection Service and the Federal Bureau of Investigations are offering a one million dollar reward for information leading to those sending anthrax tainted letters.

The Washington, DC Processing and Distribution center at Brentwood and the Baltimore-Washington International Airport air mail facility have been temporarily closed for inspection for possible anthrax contamination, the U.S. Postal Service announced today.

The actions were taken Sunday following reports by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the District of Columbia that a Brentwood postal employee had been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. That employee, and another whose case was announced today, are being treated at local hospitals.

Ridge

Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, the president's advisor on Homeland Security, said the postal worker's deaths are likely due to anthrax (Photo courtesy The White House)
"The safety and health of our employees is our foremost concern," said Potter. "While these actions are precautionary, we absolutely do not want to risk placing any postal employees in danger. By assuring the safety of our employees, we can assure the safety of our customers."

Potter said that all Brentwood employees who handle expedited mail are being tested for exposure to anthrax bacteria. Antibotics are being made available to all employees at both facilities, Potter said.

So far, at least nine employees have showed some symptoms that could be related to anthrax. Test results confirming or ruling out the disease will take several days, officials said.

Postal officials said they did not begin testing for anthrax earlier - despite concerns that the letter sent to Senator Lott could have released anthrax before it was delivered - on the advice of the CDC.

While anthrax-contaminated mail has not been definitively identified as the source of the spores which infected the Brentwood workers, investigators are focusing on the mailrooms where the employees worked as the likely sources of the disease.

The possibility that the postal workers contracted anthrax simply by handling - not opening - a letter containing anthrax is heightening fears that all postal workers, mailroom employees and perhaps anyone handling mail could potentially be at risk.

Last week, two postal workers in New Jersey, where several anthrax tainted letters have originated, were diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax - the skin form of the disease. That form of anthrax is far less life threatening than the inhalation form, and both workers are expected to recover fully.

poster

Posters like these are being sent to mailrooms, and residents will receive postcards detailing security measures next week (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)
The prognosis for the Washington DC workers is not as positive, and the news today that two of their fellow Brentwood employees may have died from the disease is leading some to call for more widespread testing and antibiotic treatment of postal workers.

Tests are now underway to determine the cause of death for the two Brentwood workers who have died - one just this morning. Preliminary tests on the man who died today suggest he may have had an anthrax infection, but further tests are needed to confirm that diagnosis.

If the Brentwood deaths are linked to anthrax, that would bring the number of anthrax fatalities across the nation to three. The first victim, American Media Inc. photo editor Bob Stevens, died after opening an anthrax-tainted letter last month.

The American Media headquarters in Boca Raton, Florida has been shuttered since October 8, and has now been declared a federal Superfund site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has begun extensive environmental testing at the site, and has allocated $500,000 to pay for cleanup of the offices.

So far, the anthrax attacks have been directed at major media outlets or high ranking public officials. Cases of cutaneous anthrax have been confirmed at the television networks NBC, CBS and ABC. A letter mailed to the "New York Post" has tested positive for anthrax.

The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives offices remain closed today, and are expected to stay closed tomorrow as health inspectors search for anthrax contamination. On Saturday, inspectors found the bacteria on a mail bundling machine in a House office building.

Other suspected cases have been found to be false alarms. New York Governor George Pataki moved back into his Manhattan offices after extensive testing ruled out anthrax contamination. A suspicious letter sent to the Microsoft company offices in Reno, Nevada, initially tested positive for the spores, but more thorough testing found the letter to be safe.

But raising the bar on fear again, Arkansas health officials are now analyzing samples of a powder sprayed onto two boats on the Mississippi River by a low flying crop duster on Friday. So far, the substance does not appear to be anthrax or any other biological weapon, but the boat crews are being treated with antibiotics as a precaution.