WASHINGTON -- Anthrax was discovered in an offsite mail facility for the White House on Tuesday and confirmed as the cause of death for two postal workers in the nation's capital, the latest bioterrorism victims.
President Bush, trying to provide reassurance, told reporters, "We're making sure the West Wing and the White House is safe."
As evidence of anthrax grew, officials revealed that a mail handler in New Jersey and at least two more postal workers in Washington were believed to be suffering from the inhalation form of the disease.
"We need to treat and to treat quickly," said Dr. Ivan Walks, the senior health official in the District of Columbia, adding that anthrax had been confirmed inside the central Brentwood mail facility that serves the city. Antibiotics were being dispensed to postal workers across Washington as officials began testing to see if anthrax had spread to local post offices.
At the White House, spokes-man Ari Fleischer said anthrax had been found Tuesday at a mail screening facility for the White House located at a military installation. That facility was closed for testing and decontamination. Fleischer said that all environmental tests at the White House itself have come back negative.
Speaking at the White House, House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt expressed frustration with a recent statement by Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security, who said the anthrax had not been "weaponized."
"The words are not particularly helpful," said Gephardt, D-Mo. "Obviously this stuff gets in the air and stays in the air. ... You can call it anything you want to call it. This is not safe stuff."
Gephardt added, "This is weapons-grade material."
Officials identified the two men who died of inhalational anthrax as Joseph P. Curseen, 47, and Thomas L. Morris Jr., 55.The origin of this latest sign of anthrax was unknown, but the Secret Service noted that mail handled there is processed through the Brentwood facility, too.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said the government was "not going to tarry" in getting health investigators to test the White House mail facility. "We're going to be in there quickly and will be issuing the necessary antibiotics to the people who need it."
Two more people affiliated with the Brentwood facility were being treated for inhalation anthrax, though test results confirming the diagnosis were not complete, said Donna Bigler, spokeswoman for Montgomery County, Md., where the two patients were hospitalized.
One of them, a 35-year-old man, works at Brentwood. The second, a 41-year-old woman, is a postal union official and was in the facility regularly, Bigler said.
Buffeted with questions, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer defended federal health authorities who initially opted not to test the Brentwood facility after learning it had handled an anthrax-tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
"The president believes the cause of death was not the treatment made by the federal government or the local officials, or anyone else, but the cause of death was the attack made on our nation by people mailing anthrax," he said.
Leak a surprise
Defending his agency, Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC never suspected that anthrax could leak out of a sealed letter.
"We had had no cases of inhalation anthrax in a mail sorting facility," he said. "There was no reason to think this was a possibility."
At the same time, Thompson said that if additional tainted letters are found, officials would move more aggressively to test and treat any workers at postal facilities that handled them.
Congress returned to work for the first time since an anthrax scare spread across Capitol Hill last week. House and Senate office buildings remained closed for additional environmental testing, and two sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities may decide to burn piles of mail for fear they could never check them adequately for anthrax.
So far, three people have died from inhalation anthrax and three who have been diagnosed with anthrax are hospitalized.