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Archive for Saturday, October 27, 2001

Anthrax spreads through capital

Supreme Court mailroom, CIA among latest targets

October 27, 2001

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— The saboteur who is poisoning mail probably sent more than one anthrax-tainted letter to the federal government, officials said Friday as traces of the bacteria were discovered in an off-site mail- room of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Central Intelligence Agency, a military hospital and congressional offices.

Trace amounts of anthrax were discovered in the offices of three congressman in a House office building, officials said Friday night.

The spores were found in the offices of Reps. John E. Baldacci, D-Maine; Rush Holt, D-N.J., and Mike Pence, R-Ind., on the sixth and seventh floors of the Longworth House Office Building, said Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.

Dr. John Eisold, the Capitol physician, described spores found in the three offices as trace amounts. "We are not concerned about a significant health risk," he said.

The building, housing dozens of lawmakers' offices, has been closed since Oct. 18 and mail deliveries throughout the Capitol complex have been halted since before then.

Holt's and Pence's offices are on the sixth floor of the building and Baldacci's is on the seventh floor.

The Longworth discoveries were the first in the offices of lawmakers since Oct. 15, when anthrax on Capitol Hill was first found in a letter postmarked from New Jersey and opened that morning in an office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the Hart Senate Office Building.

With anthrax being found in new places almost daily and the number of suspected illnesses slowly rising, federal health officials decided Friday to give antibiotics to a wider number of people in Washington.

They also will administer anthrax vaccine to disease investigators, laboratory workers and decontamination experts around the nation.

Lisa Swenarski, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said an advisory board also is discussing the possible vaccination of postal workers.

"Yes," she said. "I can confirm that."

Until now, anthrax vaccine has been limited to members of the U.S. armed forces and certain lab workers. Its use has been controversial, with some experts saying it could cause medical problems.

Patrick Meehan, the CDC's director of emergency environmental health services, said many more people in the Washington area might need to take precautionary antibiotics. He offered no specifics, but Mayor Anthony Williams said workers at 2,000 to 4,000 "small mail-handling" facilities such as large apartment buildings might be included.

"We're getting in front of the fire," Meehan said.

Though anthrax was not found in the Supreme Court itself, authorities barred tourists from the regal building and ordered it shut. Medical workers offered tests and antibiotics to the 400 employees who work there, apparently including the nine justices.

Traces of anthrax also were reported Friday at mailrooms serving the Central Intelligence Agency and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and at another post office, bringing to nine the number of facilities in or near Washington where anthrax has been found.

"There are probably multiple mailings that have gone out," said CDC Director Jeffrey Koplan. "There may be several places in the federal government that are deemed targets."

Still, he said, the incidental migration of bacteria from one letter to another known as "cross-contamination" could be responsible for the anthrax spores found at some of the sites in the Washington area.

That raised the possibility that mail delivered to local homes and businesses could harbor anthrax spores. The amounts would be below the threshold likely to cause illness, Koplan said. Small amounts of anthrax also have been found in post offices in South Florida, in New York City and near Trenton, N.J.

At this point, might the residents of entire ZIP codes be required to take precautionary antibiotics?

"No," Koplan said. "Just plain no. There just wouldn't be enough infectious material from cross-contamination to do that."

At the White House, spokesman Ari Fleischer said investigators have determined that only a skilled microbiologist working in a sophisticated laboratory could have produced the anthrax that has killed three people, sickened about 15 others and alarmed the nation.

That did not appreciably narrow the field. Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said up to 40 labs in the United States and possibly 100 around the world could fit that description. Other experts offered higher numbers.

Fleischer said authorities have not ruled out the possibility that foreign elements were responsible for the terror-by-mail, but he also seemed to signal that more attention is being paid to possible domestic sources.

"That does not rule out that it could come from a foreign location," he said. "But it certainly does expand it beyond state sponsorship or foreign locations."

Federal investigators are tracking down people who work or recently worked at research facilities that store anthrax or who have access to equipment needed to grow and process the bacteria, officials said.

According to one senior law enforcement official, the FBI and state and local police are looking for anyone who might be capable of producing the powdered anthrax that was sent to the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and might have grudges against the U.S. government or the news media.

They also are compiling a list of all facilities where anthrax could have been produced and of sales of the laboratory equipment needed to make it.

During another day of rapidly unfolding developments, the government announced at midday that trace amounts of anthrax were found on an air filter at a Supreme Court mailroom located several miles from the court building.

Anthrax has not been found in the court building, but the ventilation system was quickly switched off and the entire structure will be "tested thoroughly," said spokeswoman Kathy Arberg.

If the building remains closed Monday, the justices will gather at the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington to hear scheduled arguments.

Also Friday, officials reported finding small amounts of anthrax at a Central Intelligence Agency mail office in Langley, Va., and in a mailroom at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md. Both are suburbs of Washington.

Postal inspectors said Friday that they found evidence of anthrax at a post office in the southwest section of Washington. The building was immediately closed.

Anthrax also has been detected at the White House, the State Department, the House of Representatives and the main Brentwood mail-processing center for Washington.

Only one anthrax-contaminated letter has been found in Washington the one sent to Daschle but most experts said that letter could not have infected a State Department mail handler hospitalized this week with respiratory anthrax.

The 59-year-old male State Department employee, still in guarded condition Friday, had no contact with the letter sent to Daschle and had not visited the post offices that processed that letter, officials said.

That left two possibilities: He was infected by a still undiscovered letter sent by the mail saboteur or by a letter that came into contact with tainted mail and picked up enough bacteria to make someone sick.

That second possibility respiratory anthrax caused by cross-contamination "is highly unlikely to virtually impossible," Koplan said.

Scientists believe that at least 8,000 spores of anthrax are required to cause inhalation anthrax. That's far more than would move from one letter to another as mail is being processed, experts said.

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