By Laura Meckler
WASHINGTON – Two-hundred mail workers in Kansas City, Mo., are being urged to take antibiotics after traces of anthrax were found at a specialized postal facility there, extending the anthrax threat to the Midwest. Spores were found in yet more government buildings, with preliminary tests showing anthrax in four Food and Drug Administration mail rooms.
In New York, investigators traced a woman’s final steps in an attempt to find out how she was infected with inhalation anthrax.
Postal authorities began picking through piles of decontaminated mail in Washington, searching for a possible unopened tainted letter that might help explain why anthrax spores have been found in more than a dozen spots around the capital. Yet another mail handler was possibly infected.
In New York, investigators were looking for clues in the death of Kathy T. Nguyen, a hospital worker who fell victim to inhalation anthrax on Wednesday, the fourth person to die since the anthrax-by-mail attack was discovered nearly a month ago. Her death had officials worried that the anthrax attack, so far concentrated among postal and media employees, could be spreading to a new group of Americans.
“We need to find out how she was infected,” said Surgeon General David Satcher. “It’s very strange.”
And authorities awaited test results for a Nguyen co-worker at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital who has a suspicious skin lesion.
Anthrax has killed four people and infected six others with the dangerous inhalation form of the disease. An additional seven people have been infected with the highly curable skin form.
Preliminary tests Wednesday found anthrax spores in a Kansas City, Mo., postal facility, and about 200 workers were told to join tens of thousands others from elsewhere who are taking antibiotics to ward off possible infection. Anthrax was also found at a private postal maintenance center in Indianapolis on equipment sent from a contaminated mail-processing center in Trenton. N.J.
The positive test results in Kansas City came from swabs on two bags of employees’ trash in the first-day cancellation section of the Stamp Fulfillment Services Center, which is housed in an underground complex.
The FDA said today that preliminary tests found anthrax spores in mailrooms of four of its Rockville, Md., buildings. Further tests were under way.
The news was better inside Washington’s postal system, where three post offices closed for decontamination reopened and city officials reconsidered whether thousands of mail handlers in private offices and outlying post offices need to take preventive medicine, as was recommended last week.
“We have gotten our arms around this and we may be on the other side,” said Dr. Ivan Walks, the city’s chief health officer.
Not so in New York, where investigators were puzzled by the death of Nguyen, a 61-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who checked into the hospital three days earlier. Sedated and using a ventilator to breathe, she was never able to provide investigators clues about where she might have encountered the deadly bacteria.
Environmental testing at her Bronx apartment and at the outpatient hospital where she worked found no evidence of anthrax. Preliminary tests found spores on her clothing, but it was unclear whether that would help solve what Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health called a “very puzzling mystery.”
Investigators worked to assemble the pieces of her life, a difficult task given that she lived alone and had no close family. They searched her home, interviewed neighbors, tracked down friends and tried to figure out where she might have traveled during the final days of her life.
The woman worked in a basement supply room that had recently included a mailroom, but there were no reports of suspicious letters or other obvious cause for alarm – a sharp contrast to other cases in which tainted mail has been linked to the disease.
Satcher said authorities are very concerned that her infection represents a new wave in the anthrax attacks.
“There might well be some other strategy involved here,” he said Wednesday on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “There might well be other letters than the ones that we’ve been familiar with already. So, yes, it is a source of great concern.”
But John Nolan, deputy postmaster general, told NBC’s “Today” show that the public should be confident about their mail. “Compared to almost anything else you do in life, handling the mail is among the safest things you could possibly do,” Nolan said, adding that people should immediately notify authorities of any suspicious mail.
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman said consumers should feel confident about the safety of their food supply. But, she told CNN, “the consumer has to wash their fruits and vegetables, make sure they cook their meats thoroughly.” She said the government is continuing to review “all of our systems to make sure we are taking every step possible to ensure food safety.”
“Keep in mind the processed food industry has dealt with a number of issues over the years … and they have taken steps continuously to ensure that products can’t be tampered with,’ she said.
There was anxiety over the case of a 51-year-old New Jersey woman who was diagnosed earlier in the week with skin anthrax. She told authorities that she did not recall opening any suspicious mail at the accounting firm where she works, and investigators have not discovered any other way that she may have been exposed to anthrax.
That suggests that innocent mail may have been contaminated while it was processed, said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The risk from mail is not zero. It is very low but it’s not zero,” Koplan said Wednesday. “That low amount of risk may translate into cases occasionally such as this.”
Also in New Jersey, officials reported a new suspected case of skin anthrax involving a postal worker who lives in Delaware. The man, who was not identified, works in Bellmawr, N.J., and if his case is confirmed, it will be the first in the state outside the Trenton area.
The regional facility where the man works, which delivers mail to 1.1 million addresses in southern New Jersey and Delaware, has been shut down.
Despite an intensive four-week investigation by the FBI and health experts, Attorney General John Ashcroft said he had “no progress to report” in identifying the culprits or preventing further attacks.
“I think for the American people it’s frightening, it’s scary,” conceded White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
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