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Anthrax Suspected as Cause Of Postal Workers’ Deaths

By Thomas Frank

and Elaine Povich

Two postal workers in a Washington facility that handled an anthrax-laced letter have died and two other employees there remained hospitalized for the anthrax disease, officials said.

“Their deaths are likely due to anthrax,” Tom Ridge, federal director of Homeland Security, said Monday while awaiting final test results on the two dead, whose names were not disclosed.

Another 13 people in the Washington area, most of whom work at the same postal processing facility, have shown symptoms of anthrax and are being closely monitored and treated by health officials.

The latest outbreak brings the number of confirmed anthrax infections nationwide to nine, though officials said that number was likely to rise as test results are reported in the next day.

It also brought criticism from Washington Mayor Anthony Williams that federal health officials were not vigilant enough in testing postal employees and buildings after an anthrax-laced letter was discovered last week in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

“There’s been a lot of concern today not just from the mayor, but from everybody that perhaps the CDC would have been wiser to have begun extensive environmental testing and individual swabbing earlier” at the postal center, said Williams spokesman Tony Bullock, referring to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After anthrax was found last Monday in a letter that a Daschle aide opened, thousands of congressional employees and many members of Congress were tested with nasal swabs and given a 10-day supply of antibiotics. Nearly 2,200 postal employees were tested Sunday and Monday and given antibiotics.

But Bullock said, “If the same response had occurred there, maybe we would have less incidents today. ... Everybody should have the same level of treatment and response.”

Federal officials defended the response, saying they quickly tested a post office from where the anthrax-laced letter was delivered to Daschle and initially found no anthrax spores. But a couple of days ago, final tests from the post office showed some anthrax, said Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, the deputy surgeon general.

“We were taking it one step at a time to determine what in fact we ought to be doing as far as tracing back,” Moritsugu said.

Dr. Ivan Walks, chief health officer for Washington, said health officials waited until “the evidence chain indicated that there was anthrax present in the facility.”

Postmaster General John Potter announced that the Postal Service plans to “sanitize” mail, possibly with equipment that emits ultraviolet rays and which is now used on meat and medical supplies. The Postal Service also is planning to revise its procedure of cleaning sorting machines by blowing out the dust.

It was not clear how the anthrax, which is not contagious, infected the postal employees. The two postal employees who have been confirmed with inhalation anthrax are being treated at area hospitals.

Ridge said “it was probably the same letter” that caused the known anthrax cases among postal employees -- an apparent reference to the mail sent to Daschle -- but added, “I can’t say for sure.”