Washington The Bush administration struggled Wednesday to make the nation's vast postal system and its 800,000 employees safe from anthrax. Surgeon General David Satcher bluntly admitted "we were wrong" not to respond more aggressively to tainted mail in the nation's capital.
"Anybody who puts poison in mail is a terrorist," said President Bush, although he said he had no direct evidence to link the Sept. 11 airliner attacks with the outbreak of a disease that was last seen in the United States more than two decades ago.
With the demand for antibiotics growing, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced agreement with Bayer Corp. for the government to buy 100 million pills at the deeply reduced price of 95 cents each.
Ivan Walks, head of the health department in the nation's capital, told reporters officials were following 11 cases deemed suspicious for anthrax. Most if not all are linked to a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that passed through mail facilities from Trenton N.J., to Capitol Hill.
In all, the nation's casualty toll ran to six cases of confirmed inhalation anthrax, including the deaths of two postal workers in Washington and a tabloid photo editor in Florida. Another six cases of the less dangerous skin form of the disease are confirmed, including some linked to tainted mail addressed to TV networks and the New York Post.
Officials have reported another dozen suspected inhalation cases, most of them in the Washington area.
In the capital city, officials recommended antibiotics for as many as 200 employees of large-volume bulk mail customers who regularly visit the city's central mail facility. "You know who you are," said postal service vice president Deborah Willhite, "You should go to D.C. General (hospital) and pick up some Cipro."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the spores that killed two postal workers in recent days were so small and finely milled that they suggest "more than a casual scientist" is behind the attacks.
Frist, a surgeon who has been closely involved with managing Capitol Hill's anthrax scare, predicted "there will be more illness." The culprit behind the anthrax-laced letters wanted to "personalize the terror" by making Americans fearful to open their mailboxes, he added.
He spoke as lawmakers were allowed back into one of the Senate's office buildings on Capitol Hill for the first time since last week. Five other office buildings remained closed.
At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said roughly 200 employees were taking antibiotics as a precaution following Tuesday's discovery of anthrax at a remote mail handling facility. Thus far, he said none has tested positive for exposure.
For the first time, senior officials emphasized how little they had known about anthrax when a white powdery substance spilled from Daschle's mail nine days ago.
"This is new for us. We've never been through a bioterrorist attack before," Satcher said on NBC. "I'm worried that we're being attacked and we don't fully understand the attack."
"We are learning as we go," said Postmaster General John Potter, who readily told interviewers in a round of network appearances that he couldn't fully guarantee the safety of the mail.
On the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Postal Service was distributing masks and gloves for its workers. New equipment was on order to irradiate the mail to make it safer.
Satcher said officials were considering whether to vaccinate postal employees in high risk areas, and said it may be necessary to tap the inactive reserves of the public health service commissioned corps doctors and other health care professionals in private life if the attacks continue.
Thompson issued a statement saying the deal with Bayer, holder of the patent for Cipro, "means that a much larger supply of this important pharmaceutical product will be available if needed." He said the price represents a savings of $95 million from Bayer's original price. The company's president, Helge H. Wehmeier, said, "Bayer is fully committed to supplying America in its war on bioterrorism."
Thousands of postal workers in New York, New Jersey and the nation's capital were already taking medication as a precaution.
One Florida victim, Ernesto Blanco, was released late Tuesday after a 23-day stay in the hospital. "He looks good, he's mobile, he's talking," said his stepdaughter, Maria Orth. "He seems to have some energy."
The comments by Satcher and Potter, coupled with comments made by Thompson on Tuesday, indicated that officials recognized they were acting on faulty assumptions when they responded to the letter opened in Daschle's office.
With anthrax known to be in the letter, investigators traced the mail backward, then stopped when they found no evidence of the bacteria at a congressional mail intake facility.
Their confidence was shattered on Saturday with the illness of a postal worker from a processing center that had sent the letter to the congressional mail station.
That signaled that the anthrax had somehow escaped taped mail and spread through the air.
"We did what we thought was the right thing at the time," said Satcher. We are learning together and we are being attacked."