Secondary anthrax cases crop up

By Sara Kugler

Associated Press

NEW YORK — A police officer and two lab technicians involved in the NBC anthrax investigation have tested positive for the bacteria, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said Sunday. Nevada officials said four people who may have come into contact with a contaminated letter at a Microsoft office tested negative while results weren’t known for two others.

The new New York cases brought to 12 the number of people around the nation who either have anthrax or have been exposed to it. That does not include a second NBC employee who is taking antibiotics after displaying possible symptoms of the disease.

Meanwhile, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that he considered the anthrax cases in New York and Nevada, and Florida, to be instances of bioterrorism. "It certainly is an act of terrorism to send anthrax through the mail," he said on Fox News on Sunday.

And Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was "premature at this time to decide whether there is a direct link" to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network, but "we should consider this potential that it is linked.

The anthrax scare began Oct. 4 when it was confirmed that a Florida tabloid editor had contracted the inhaled form of the bacteria. His death a day later was the first resulting from the disease in the United States since 1976.

Seven other employees of American Media Inc. have tested positive for exposure and are being treated with antibiotics. None have developed the disease. A second round of blood tests for more than 300 of the company’s employees is expected this week.

News of the exposures has caused jitters around the world, with a number of false or pending cases reported over the weekend. Among them:

  • In Hawaii, hazardous-materials teams were called to Lihue Airport after passengers on a flight from Los Angeles discovered a white powder on their luggage after they arrived. Tests were being conducted on the powder.

  • In Uniontown, Pa., a 49-year-old woman was given Cipro, an antibiotic for anthrax, and was tested for exposure after receiving an envelope containing a powdery substance. She was later released from a hospital.

  • In England, several hundred people were evacuated from Canterbury Cathedral after a worker said he saw a man dropping a white powder in one of the chapels. Workers wearing chemical protection suits cleared up the powder and took samples for analysis.

    In New York, Giuliani said the officer and two technicians were exposed while working on the anthrax case involving Erin O’Connor, 38, the assistant to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw. O’Connor is expected to recover from the infection.

    O’Connor was exposed when she opened a letter, containing a brown granular substance, that was mailed to Brokaw from Trenton, N.J. It was postmarked on Sept. 18, one week after terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

    At first, O’Connor thought she had thrown away the letter, but remembered it Friday while being interviewed, New York postal inspector Peter Nash said Sunday.

    Investigators had initially focused on a second letter — postmarked in St. Petersburg, Fla. — as the likely source of the anthrax.

    Giuliani said the police officer had the bacteria in his nose, as did one lab technician. Another technician had a spore on her face. Both work for the city health department, which conducted the tests.

    Exposure to the spores does not mean infection and said the three are expected to be fine, Giuliani said. Their identities were not released.

    In Nevada, where a letter sent to a Microsoft office in Reno contained pornographic pictures contaminated with anthrax, officials said preliminary tests of four people who may have been exposed proved negative for the bacteria.

    Results for two others were pending, with results of those nasal swab tests likely known today, Washoe County health officer Barbara Hunt.

    The six people tested included five Microsoft workers and a family member.

    State officials have sent the pornographic pictures to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for further testing.

    Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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