Nine have anthrax: Postal worker has inhalation form

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A District of Columbia postal worker is "gravely ill" with inhaled anthrax, leading government officials to order testing for as many as 2,300 more mail employees, Mayor Anthony Williams said today.

The man, whose identity was not disclosed, was in serious condition at a suburban Virginia hospital. The third person to come down with the most serious form of the disease, he checked into the hospital on Friday and was diagnosed this morning, said Dr. Ivan Walks, the city’s chief health officer.

"He is acutely ill," said Janice Moore, a spokeswoman for Inova Fairfax Hospital.

Beginning today, more than 2,100 employees the city’s main mail processing center and an additional 150 at an air mail handling center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport will be tested for exposure to anthrax spores and receive treatment, the mayor said.

"We’re going to do everything we can and everything we have to do," he said.

An anthrax-laced letter sent to Majority Leader Tom Daschle was processed at the district facility, but officials said they did not know whether the worker came into contact with it or whether there might have been other tainted letters that have yet to be discovered.

After the Daschle letter was discovered last week, the postal service hired independent contractors to test the district facility for anthrax, but those results are not yet known, said Deborah Willhite, a postal service executive.

Both facilities will be closed indefinitely while extensive testing is done, she said.

The postal worker first developed flu-like symptoms in the middle of last week, but did not go to the hospital until Friday, when he was immediately given antibiotics. Health officials said they do not know whether they began treatment early enough to save his life.

"The prognosis for inhalation anthrax is not great. The earlier you start, the better," said Anne Peterson, Virginia’s health commissioner.

Sen. Bill Frist, a doctor before he joined the Senate, called the development "tragic news."

Frist, R-Tenn., said the man must have been exposed to an intense form of the bacterium, strong enough to move through his respiratory track and deep into his lungs.

"Obviously when that postal worker touched it, it was in a more concentrated, virile form," Frist said on CBS’ "Face the Nation."

The senator offered a possible scenario for exposure: "As the postal machinery and sometimes the workers compress it, the anthrax then can come out. Most of the envelopes were sealed all around, and the theory is that it came out in a burst of air and that’s how it’s inhaled."

Also today, Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, said 4,500 to 5,000 people have been tested on Capitol Hill since the Daschle letter was discovered a week ago. Twenty-eight of them have tested positive for exposure to anthrax but none have contracted the disease.

He said confirmation of inhalation anthrax at the Washington post office "does not alter how we are treating our patient population here."

The environmental sweep through the Capitol complex continued today. House and Senate leaders were to be briefed on findings late in the day and planned a news conference to announce whether the Capitol would open Monday, Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols said.

Officials said they hoped to be able to open the Capitol itself in time for the House and Senate to reconvene on Tuesday. But one official who spoke on condition of anonymity said House leaders also were looking at Fort McNair, a military installation near the Capitol, as an alternative location.

Nineteen buildings including and surrounding the Capitol must have environmental surveys. Anthrax spores were found in four of them, Nichols said. He did not indicate how much more work needed to be done before all 19 buildings were deemed safe.

The postal employee is the ninth person to be diagnosed with anthrax since a Florida man died early this month from inhalation anthrax. Six of the victims were exposed through the skin, a less serious form of the disease.

A second Florida man with inhalation anthrax is doing well, his stepdaughter said today. Ernesto Blanco, 73, a co-worker of the man who died, no longer is on intravenous medication and is taking oral antibiotics, she said.

On Saturday, the anthrax threat widened as health inspectors found the potentially deadly bacteria in a mail bundling machine in a House office building just a few blocks from the Capitol.

The swab of the machine was taken Wednesday, confirmed Saturday and marked the first time traces of anthrax have been found on the House side of Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress are wondering where else anthrax might linger.

"Now, you got to look at, well, where did that mail go from there?" asked Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., on ABC’s "This Week." "We’re dealing with a new situation. We’re trying to deal with it rationally."

House leaders decided to adjourn after the anthrax was discovered in the Senate to allow for a thorough check of House buildings — a move that brought a barrage of criticism as the Senate stayed in session.

"Now they appear to be vindicated with that decision," Lott said.

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