Anthrax Confirmed in Death of Two Postal Workers

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 23, 2001 (ENS) - Health officials confirmed today that the two U.S. Postal Service workers who died Monday in the Washington DC region had contracted inhalation anthrax. Another postal worker in New Jersey is now believed to be ill with the most dangerous, inhaled form of the disease.

Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams told reporters today that the deaths of two employees from the Brentwood mail sorting center a "confirmed cases of inhalational anthrax." The employees were identified as Joseph Cursseen of Camp Springs, Maryland, and Thomas Morris of Suitland, Maryland.

Potter

Jack Potter, U.S. Postmaster General (Photo courtesy U.S. Postal Service)
"Our hearts, our condolences, our prayers go out to the families," said Postmaster General Jack Potter. "This is personal. We've lost two of our own."

Two more employees of Brentwood, the sorting center which handles mail bound for Congress, are still hospitalized in "serious but stable" condition with confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax, said Dr. Ivan Walks, chief health officer for the District of Columbia and director of the District's Department of Health.

There are now four confirmed anthrax cases, four cases listed as suspicious, and another 12 cases with a very low suspicion of an anthrax link, Walks said at a press conference.

In light of the confirmed illnesses and deaths, all Washington DC area postal workers are now being given a 10 day course of prophylactic antibiotics. Media representatives and other officials who visited the Brentwood facility - including Mayor Williams and his mother - will also be given the drugs.

Walks

Dr. Ivan Walks, director of the DC Department of Health (Photo courtesy DC Department of Health)
"We do not need to do further testing, but we need to treat, and we need to treat quickly," said Walks.

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said there is so far no evidence of contamination or risk to postal workers beyond the Brentwood facility. However, the agency plans to take the precautionary measure of treating all employees until an assessment of any risk is completed.

The Brentwood processing plant has been officially determined to be a crime scene, noted Deborah Willhite, senior vice president of the U.S. Postal Service.

"It's a crime scene because someone has been murdered," Willhite said.

Willhite and the other officials at today's press conference faced tough questions about why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Postal Service waited so long to begin testing postal employees - more than a week after a letter carrying anthrax was confirmed at the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Williams

Washington DC Mayor Anthony Williams today announced the deaths of two postal workers from inhalation anthrax (Photo courtesy Government of the District of Columbia)
"In retrospect we should have done a number of things earlier," admitted Mayor Williams. "If we knew then what we know now, we would have done a number of things earlier."

Based on cases on cutaneous, or skin, anthrax contracted at the New Jersey post office which handled several anthrax contaminated letters, the CDC did not believe that postal workers were at risk of developing the more dangerous inhaled form, officials explained.

"We followed the advice of the CDC and other public health officials who advised us that, until there was an evidence chain that indicated that there was anthrax present in the facility, that it was not necessary to test our workers," said Willhite.

Environmental tests reported Monday confirm that anthrax has been found on materials in the back employee work area at the Brentwood facility.

"Of 29 swabs, 14 indicated 'hot spots' within the mail processing plant," said Willhite. "We tested areas of the plant that would have been involved in processing mail that went to Capitol Hill."

Tests on the facility's ventilation system and priority mail processing area are not yet back from the lab, Willhite said.

press conference

Mayor Williams at today's press conference, flanked by DC health director Dr. Ivan Walks (left) and Deborah Willhite, senior vice president of the U.S. Postal Service (Photo by Lateef Mangum, courtesy Government of the District of Columbia)
The CDC and the DC Health Services "are not the enemy here," said Willhite. "The enemy is whoever sent this letter because they have now murdered two people and two people are seriously ill. That's the important thing to keep in focus."

Federal officials are now convinced that letters containing anthrax - particularly the finely milled form received at Senator Daschle's office - pose an inhalation risk to anyone who handles them, or even breathes the air near them when they pass through a mail sorting facility.

In New Jersey today, officials confirmed that a woman who worked at the Hamilton Township post office outside Trenton has been hospitalized with inhalation anthrax. That post office has handled at least three letters containing anthrax, including the one sent to Senator Daschle and others sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

Two other postal employees from the Hamilton Township office have tested positive for cutaneous anthrax.

Thirteen of 23 environmental samples collected in the mail processing areas of the Hamilton facility have tested positive for anthrax spores.

The U.S. Congress returned to work today in makeshift offices around Washington DC, as health officials continue to scour the House and Senate office buildings for anthrax spores. So far, traces of anthrax spores have been confirmed in the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings, a mail room in the Ford office building which sorts mail for the House, and a congressional mail processing office.

Today, a letter opening machine at the facility that handles all mail headed for the White House tested positive for anthrax spores, the Secret Service announced.