Third case of inhaled anthrax found
WASHINGTON -- A District of Columbia postal worker is "gravely ill" from inhalation anthrax, a rare and lethal form of the disease, prompting the Postal Service to close two facilities and begin testing more than 2,200 workers for exposure.
The man, who was not identified, is the third person in the nation to come down with the most serious form of the disease, where anthrax spores enter the respiratory system and lodge deep in the lungs. Six others, including two postal workers, have been infected with a highly treatable form that is contracted through the skin.
Mayor Anthony Williams said the latest victim, the first in Washington to contract the disease, was "gravely ill." He was listed in serious but stable condition at a suburban Virginia hospital near his home.
As postal workers lined up for testing, the number of people directly affected -- although not sickened -- by the anthrax-by-letter scare reached well above 5,000 just in the nation's capital. Investigators focused on Trenton, N.J., where some of the tainted letters were mailed.
Congressional leaders said they would reopen the Capitol today, though House and Senate office buildings will remain closed until results from environmental testing are complete.
Much still unknown
An anthrax-laced letter that arrived a week ago at Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office was processed at the central mail processing facility where the man worked. 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.
The man first developed flu-like symptoms in the middle of last week but did not feel ill enough to go to the hospital until Friday. Sick with fever and chest pain, he was immediately given Cipro and other antibiotics, but health officials did not know whether they began treatment early enough to save his life.
Surgeon General David Satcher said inhalation anthrax -- which is not contagious -- 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. "It is not yet hopeless."
Health investigators moved quickly to determine whether anthrax was present in either of two postal facilities where the man worked and whether other employees might have been exposed.
Hour after diagnosis
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.
The testing began at City Hall on Sunday, an hour after officials confirmed the diagnosis. It was to continue Monday at D.C. General Hospital.
"God forbid if more comes through," said Larry Bagley, who works near the hospitalized worker and was lined up for testing. "I feel I'm all right. I have faith in God and the Cipro."
Officials also planned extensive environmental testing at both facilities. They will use the results, along with the nasal swab testing, to determine which workers will need a full course of preventive antibiotics.
The victim worked in a small room and did not typically come into contact with the large sorting machines, said Deborah Willhite, a top Postal Service official. She said it was unclear how he might have inhaled enough anthrax -- at least 8,000 of the invisible spores -- to contract the inhalation form of the disease.
After the Daschle letter was discovered, the Postal Service hired independent contractors to test the district facility for anthrax, but those results will not be available until late Sunday or today, Willhite said.
Both facilities will be closed until testing and cleaning can be completed, she said.
On Capitol Hill, an environmental sweep through 19 buildings continued Sunday. Investigators have found traces of anthrax in four of them, and 28 people have tested positive for exposure, though none has been diagnosed with the disease.
Last week, the House shut down operations for the first time in history to allow for the sweep. The Senate remained open, causing a rift between the two chambers.
On high alert
Local health officials said they have been on high alert for bioterrorist incidents since the Sept. 11 attacks. A regional computerized surveillance system looks for common symptoms that could signal a biological attack. About 10 cases of potential anthrax have surfaced each day, said Anne Peterson, the Virginia health commissioner.
The system, she said, allowed officials to catch this case early and begin aggressive antibiotic treatment.
One man has died from inhalation anthrax: Robert Stevens, a photo editor at The Sun in Boca Raton, Fla. A co-worker of Stevens also has inhalation anthrax but is doing well, his stepdaughter said Sunday. Ernesto Blanco, 73, no longer is on intravenous medication and is taking oral antibiotics, she said.
Before Stevens was diagnosed, the last case of inhalation of anthrax in this country was in 1978.