Anthrax Forces Supreme Court Justices Out

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, October 29, 2001 (ENS) - The U.S. Supreme Court is meeting today in a borrowed appeals court room due to concerns over possible anthrax contamination of their regular court. It is the first time in the Supreme Court building's 66 year history that the nation's highest court has needed to meet outside its headquarters.

Last Friday, health officials found anthrax spores at a remote mail facility serving the Supreme Court. Over the weekend, workers found anthrax on an air filter at the Supreme Court house itself.

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The Supreme Court courthouse, closed today and tomorrow as health workers look for anthrax spores (Photo courtesy U.S. Supreme Court)
About 400 people, including the Supreme Court justices, have been given a 10 day course of antibiotics as a precaution. No cases on anthrax are yet suspected among the justices or other court workers.

But over the weekend, another case of inhalation anthrax was confirmed in a New Jersey postal worker in Hamilton Township, near Trenton. The worker, a 56 year old woman, is the third New Jersey postal worker to be hospitalized. The other two cases involve the less dangerous skin form of the disease.

The New Jersey case brings the total number of confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax to eight, with cases occurring in Florida, Washington, DC, New Jersey and Virginia. There have been five confirmed cases of skin, or cutaneous anthrax.

The confirmed anthrax contamination in the nation's capitol has spread to several additional buildings. Over the weekend, anthrax spores were found in the buildings housing the Department of Health and Human Services, the Justice Department, and the State Department.

Traces of anthrax were found at another building which houses the Food and Drug Administration and the radio program Voice of America.

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Letter carriers and other postal workers have been hardest hit by the anthrax attacks (Photo courtesy National Association of Letter Carriers)
Mailrooms remain the focus of most of the health investigations. Of the 26 satellite mail stations tested in Washington DC, only one has tested positive for anthrax, but mailrooms in several federal offices have tested positive for traces of the spores.

Most of these traces can be traced back to the Brentwood mail sorting facility in the District of Columbia, where two workers have died of inhalation anthrax. Two other workers from the Brentwood center, which has not reopened, remain hospitalized in serious condition with inhalation anthrax.

About 2,500 postal workers from Brentwood are now being given a 50 day supply of doxycycline, an antibiotic which the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have confirmed is effective against the anthrax spores used in these terrorist attacks. The workers are completing a 10 day course of ciprofloxacin, a more powerful and more expensive antibiotic that can cause unpleasant side effects.

All workers at facilities that handle bulk mail from Brentwood - mail wrapped and packaged in tubs at Brentwood - have been asked to report for medical checkups and a 10 day supply of antibiotics. In all, tens of thousands of postal workers and other at risk persons in the Washington DC area are now on antibiotics to protect against anthrax.

"No cases of inhalational or cutaneous anthrax have been reported among customers who entered any U.S. Postal facility to purchase stamps or conduct other postal business," the CDC said Saturday.

About 68 tons of mail from the Brentwood center is being trucked to a facility in Ohio where it can be irradiated to kill any anthrax spores present.

The Brentwood facility handled an anthrax tainted letter sent to the offices of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said the Bush administration fears that there may be additional contaminated letters that have not been detected, and which continue to spread anthrax spores.

"There may be other letters that are stuck in the system," Card said on "Fox News Sunday." "But we are working hard to make sure that any contamination is confined and that we can deal with it."

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Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson admitted today the administration's response may have been too slow (Photo courtesy Department of Health and Human Services)
So far, investigators have not been able to learn who is responsible for sending the letters, Card said.

"All of our scientists are working to try to find out what it is," said Card. "But we've only had two very, very small samples that we have for analysis. And I just don't think we have all the answers yet."

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told reporters today that the Bush administration could have responded to the anthrax attacks more rapidly and more effectively.

"We're going to continue to respond with the personnel, the expertise and the medicine necessary to deal with these acts and threats of bioterrorism," Thompson said. "We're going to err on the side of caution. We're doing our best to get help to those at risk of anthrax exposure as quickly as possible. We're also working as aggressively as we can to strengthen our response capabilities. ... We're learning more each and every day; we're becoming stronger each and every day."

Administration officials suspect the anthrax attacks may be linked to the September 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Late this afternoon, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a warning that the U.S. has received a "credible threat" that additional attacks could be coming over the next week.

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Attorney General John Ashcroft (Photo courtesy Department of Justice)
A terrorist threat advisory update has been issued to 18,000 law enforcement offices across the country, Ashcroft said.

"We have alerted law enforcement," to step up vigilance in protecting public sites in the U.S., said Ashcroft. "We believe this threat to be credible and for that reason it should be taken seriously."

Federal Bureau of Investigations Director Robert Mueller said the warning is "not specific as to intended target or as to intended method."