Administration struggles to make mail safe from anthrax

Wednesday, October 24, 2001

AP Special CorrespondentWASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration struggled Wednesday to make the nation's vast postal system and its 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.

President Bush said, "On Sept. 11, this great land came under attack, and is still under attack as we speak."

Three additional cases of suspected inhalation anthrax were announced in the Maryland suburbs outside Washington, all linked to a letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle that made its way through mail facilities from Trenton N.J., to Capitol Hill.

That brought the total number of cases to 13 nationwide in the nation's bioterrorism scare, including three deaths.

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.

Officials continued to draw a rhetorical link -- but produced no evidence -- connecting the anthrax outbreak to the terrorist attacks that killed thousands of people on Sept. 11 in New York and Washington.

"Both series of actions are motivated by evil and hate," the president said after a tour of a Maryland business to promote his plans to revive the sagging economy. "Both series of actions are meant to disrupt Americans' way of life. Both series of actions are an attack on our homeland. And both series of actions will not stand."

"These attacks were clearly meant to terrorize a country already on the edge," FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said earlier.

There was no debate on that, but 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.

With the demand for anti-anthrax drugs growing, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said one tentative deal with Bayer Corp. to lower the price had faltered but a new one was in the works. "Hopefully we'll reach an agreement this afternoon," said Thompson, who said on Tuesday he would insist on a price of less than $1 per pill.

A spokesman for the Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Md., disclosed the three newest cases of suspected inhalation anthrax. The spokesman, Mike Hall, said one man and two women had been admitted overnight, and had a connection to the central Washington, D.C., mail facility where others have become infected.

"They came in with flu-like symptoms, primarily respiratory, and the fact that they were in the 'hot zone' was the overriding factor in why we began treatment and testing," he said.

The overall totals included three people dead from inhalation anthrax and nine hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases of the disease. All were in the Washington area or in New Jersey, where anthrax-spiked mail was processed on its way to Daschle, NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

In addition six people have been diagnosed around the country with the less dangerous skin form of the disease.

At the White House, Fleischer said the roster of workers taking antibiotics included 50 people who work in the mailroom in a building next door to the White House, and 150 more who work in or have visited the remote mail facility a few miles away. He declined to say whether the president had been tested, or was taking antibiotics as a precaution.

Thousands of postal workers in New York, New Jersey and the nation's capital were already taking medication as a precaution against a disease so rare that the last occurrence in the United States was more than two decades ago.

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."

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