Washington Two Washington-area postal workers have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax and two more employees at the same facility have died of symptoms consistent with the disease, officials said Monday as the nation grappled with an unprecedented bioterrorism threat.
Dr. Ivan Walks, the city's chief health official, also said authorities are investigating as many as nine more cases that have aroused concern. He said he did not know how many of the nine were postal workers or how many were hospitalized.
The disclosures came as postal workers by the dozens lined up for testing, and city authorities urged anyone connected with the affected Brentwood central mail facility to come forward immediately for screening.
"This is a different day," the city health official said at a news conference.
He said the unidentified man diagnosed with the disease was hospitalized in suburban Virginia, at the same facility where another postal worker was diagnosed over the weekend.
He said authorities were conducting tests on clinical samples from the two postal workers who died.
In one case, he said, preliminary blood testing had further aroused suspicion that anthrax may have played a role.
In the case of the second person, he said, "We do not have even the positive blood cultures ... but his clinical course is highly suspicious."
The disclosures marked a troubling turn in the nation's bioterrorism scare.
"Anyone who was working in that back postal area during the last 11 days, you must today immediately come here ... to receive prophylactic medication and to be evaluated."
Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president, said there are roughly 2,000 employees at that Brentwood postal facility in Washington.
City officials made their startling disclosures as the Capitol reopened but congressional offices remained shuttered for environmental testing.
And nearly three weeks since anthrax first surfaced in Florida, the government declared the headquarters of a Boca Raton-based tabloid company where one man died of the disease, to be a Superfund site. The designation means federal funds can be used to pay for cleanup.
Willhite issued an unusual plea to reporters to extend prayers to the families of the dead postal workers who have died, rather than barrage them with questions. "Give them time to grieve and to take care of their own business," she said.
She said the affected facility would remain closed as long as it takes to make sure it's safe again.
Officials over the weekend had said that a 57-year-old postal worker, Leroy Richmond, had been hospitalized with inhalation anthrax in serious and stable condition.
Officials did not provide the names of any of the other affected workers.
On Capitol Hill, congressional sources said it was unlikely that all the House and Senate office buildings would reopen on Tuesday, as officials had hoped. These sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said testing was continuing but it was not clear whether all the results would be in hand by the beginning of the work day on Tuesday.
Officials discovered anthrax over the weekend in a building where mail for House offices is processed. These officials said there had been no test results yet indicating anthrax in any of the other House office buildings, leaving authorities to wonder whether an as-yet undiscovered piece of mail was the source of spores found on a mail room machine.
The anthrax outbreak first surfaced more than two weeks ago in Boca Raton, Fla., when one employee of American Media Inc. died of the disease, and a second was hospitalized.
Fred Stroud, an EPA spokesman, announced the Superfund site designation, and said he had no estimate of the cost involved in decontaminating the building.
Postmaster General John Potter said the U.S. Postal Service was increasing security at its facilities and beginning to introduce technology that can sanitize mail. But he said postal workers were not being ordered to wear gloves and face masks.
There was a brief scare at another government building in Washington when the Supreme Court building was closed after a powdery substance was found in the clerk's office Monday. Court spokeswoman Kathy Arberg said the material was tested and determined to be construction-related material.
Over the last 2 1/2 weeks four men, including one who died, have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, a disease not seen in this country since 1978. Six others, including two postal workers in New Jersey, have been infected with a highly treatable form of anthrax that is contracted through the skin.
Health and postal officials said they do not know how Richmond, one of the Washington postal workers, came into contact with enough anthrax to allow the bacteria to travel into his respiratory system and lodge deep in his lungs.
Surgeon General David Satcher said inhalation anthrax has been fatal about 80 percent of the time. "But that's in the past. We have different technology today," he said on CNN's "Late Edition" Sunday. "It is not yet hopeless."
Health investigators moved quickly to determine whether anthrax was present in either of two postal facilities where Richmond worked and whether other employees might have been exposed.
More than 2,100 workers at Washington's main mail-processing center and 150 at an air mail-handling center near Baltimore-Washington International Airport were asked to report for nasal swab testing, which will help determine where in the buildings exposure may have occurred. Employees will each be given a 10-day supply of antibiotics to ward off infection in case they were exposed.
Some 1,000 workers were tested Sunday.
Officials also planned extensive environmental testing at both facilities. They will use the results, along with nasal swab testing, to determine which workers need a full course of preventive antibiotics.