Search continues for mail, offices tainted by anthrax

Associated Press WriterWASHINGTON (AP) -- Health officials tried to reassure Americans Monday about the safety of the mail they receive at home as the anthrax threat spread to the Justice Department. A New Jersey postal worker became the latest confirmed case of inhalation anthrax.

Two Washington postal workers have died of inhalation anthrax and two others -- as well as a State Department worker -- are hospitalized with the disease. The postal employees worked at the city's main postal facility, which processes mail for government and congressional offices as well as businesses and private residences in the nation's capital.

The post office also said it had 23 workers in the Washington-Baltimore area and 3 in New Jersey hospitalized with suspicious symptoms.

"There have been no documented cases at all of an individual getting a letter personally from that facility and winding up getting that disease," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said on NBC's "Today" show.

He said if that should change, officials might have to rethink their policy of who takes preventive antibiotics. "But if you try and pre-emptively go down the line you have a never-ending spiraling of essentially treating everybody and you really can't do that," he said.

The anthrax threat spread to the Justice Department, where officials announced Sunday night that several locations in an offsite facility that handles its mail had tested positive for anthrax.

The department's in-house mailrooms had stopped receiving mail from the suburban Landover, Md., location several days ago as a precaution. No other Justice facility has tested positive for anthrax, department spokeswoman Susan Dryden said.

Last week, a State Department mailroom worker was diagnosed with inhalation anthrax.

Three people have died and five others have been diagnosed with inhaled anthrax. Six people have the less serious cutaneous form of the disease, which affects the skin.

The anthrax threat was forcing the Supreme Court to meet elsewhere Monday for the first time in its building's 66-year history. The structure was closed after anthrax was detected Friday at a remote mail-handling facility serving the court, and the justices instead were hearing arguments at the U.S. District Court a mile from their chambers.

On Capitol Hill, the Hart Senate Office Building was to remain closed Monday, but other Senate offices were to be open. On the House side, the Ford and Longworth office buildings were closed thorough the weekend. Whether they would reopen Monday was unclear.

The Hart building houses the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who received a letter containing a highly potent form of anthrax three weeks ago. Since then, two postal employees from a Washington facility that processed the letter have died.

Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president, said the agency was working with the Defense Department on obtaining technology that would allow it to detect bacteria in the mail. It already has signed a $40 million contract to buy machines that can sanitize mail.

Tom Skinner, a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stressed that the New Jersey case was not a new instance of the disease, but one that had been listed as suspected anthrax. Lab tests confirmed the diagnosis Sunday, he said.

A second New Jersey worker, classified as a "suspected case" of inhalation anthrax based on preliminary tests, was released over the weekend from the hospital after her medical condition improved. Two other postal workers at the Hamilton, N.J., center where anthrax-tainted mail was handled, and a letter carrier in Ewing, N.J., are being treated for confirmed or suspected cases of skin anthrax.

In Washington, White House chief of staff Andrew Card said officials must remain vigilant.

"There may be other letters that are stuck in the system," Card said on "Fox News Sunday." "We're asking people to be very careful."

Deputy Postmaster General John M. Nolan told CBS' "Face the Nation" that there are many suppositions among investigators about more letters, "but I don't have any way of knowing."

To disseminate the growing volume of information on anthrax, homeland security chief Tom Ridge will begin briefing reporters at least three times a week, and more likely every day, administration officials said.

More than 10,000 people who may have been exposed to the bacteria have been urged to begin taking antibiotics as a precaution.