A top public health official said today that it was likely that more than one letter containing anthrax went through the government’s mailrooms, and the authorities announced the discovery of anthrax spores in mail centers serving the C.I.A., the Supreme Court and the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and its research lab.
After days in which officials theorized that the spreading anthrax contamination could be traced to one letter mailed to Senator Tom Daschle’s office, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that contamination of a State Department postal worker by the letter ”would be highly unlikely to virtually impossible.”
The director, Dr. Jeffrey P. Koplan, said that although no other letters have been found, his ”working assumption would be that there is such a letter somewhere.”
But postal officials said that no effort was being made to look for suspect letters in several sealed tractor-trailers full of Washington mail that have been shipped to a private company in Ohio for decontamination, and that none would be until the mail was safe enough to search.
The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, said that the anthrax in the letter opened last week in the office of Mr. Daschle ”could be produced by a Ph.D. microbiologist in a sophisticated laboratory,” in the United States or abroad. He said ”that does not rule out that it could be state sponsorship.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said today that it was recommending the anthrax vaccine for ”people who are repeatedly at risk of exposure” to anthrax bacteria.
Lisa Swenarski, a spokeswoman for the centers, said the recommendation applied to about 800 technicians in state health laboratories and other labs that test samples for anthrax. It also applies to people who decontaminate sites where anthrax spores have been found, she said. The vaccine is held by the Defense Department.
The State Department said its unclassified system of mail pouches to embassies was ”essentially shut down” after the mail worker, a 59-year-old contract employee at a department mail-processing center in Sterling, Va., was found to have inhalation anthrax on Thursday, and that a dozen sites at the department’s headquarters and elsewhere were being sealed and tested for anthrax.
The Supreme Court announced that its building would be closed at least through Monday for environmental testing to determine whether any mail that passed through its mail screening center in Forestville, Md., had caused contamination. An air filter taken from the center on Monday tested positive for anthrax this morning, and the court planned to meet outside its own building for the first time since it opened in 1935.
Officials said late today that tests at 36 large neighborhood post offices in the region had so far turned up anthrax at one, at 45 L Street Southwest in Washington.
Tonight, Capitol police officials said that the offices of three lawmakers in the Longworth House Office Building, which has been closed since last week, tested positive for anthrax. The offices belong to Representatives John Baldacci of Maine and Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, both Democrats, and Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana.
Also tonight, Bill Swisher, a spokesman for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, said that traces of anthrax had been found in two of its seven mailrooms and that at least 20 soldiers and civilians were being given protective antibiotics. No patient care takes place in the buildings housing the mailrooms, the hospital said.
The disclosures tonight meant that at least trace amounts of anthrax had been found in 13 places stretching from Capitol Hill to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, all of which get their mail from the capital’s main processing center on Brentwood Road.
In a sign of stepped-up preventive efforts, district health officials recommended today that workers who handle bulk mail at 4,000 public and private institutions and apartment buildings in the region should take antibiotics protectively, up from a few hundred such sites recommended on Thursday. At the Pentagon, officials said that detectors had been set up around the building to screen for biological agents.
No new cases of anthrax were reported here today, though tests of workers in the most recently discovered contaminated sites are not finished. The worker at the State Department’s Virginia mail center remained hospitalized in serious but stable condition, as did two postal workers from the Brentwood center.
Because the State Department worker told doctors he had never been to the Brentwood station, the White House’s domestic security chief, Tom Ridge, said today that ”the $64,000 question” was whether that single letter to Mr. Daschle’s office — which officials said was taped so tightly that it had to be opened with scissors — spread contamination throughout the mail system, or whether there were other letters that have not been found.
Laurie Groen, the spokeswoman for the office of the chief postal inspector, said the Postal Service was assembling a team of inspectors who will go through the mail ”after it’s deemed safe” to look for letters or packages that might have been sent with anthrax.
No one will look for such mail until then, she said, because ”postal inspectors are not going to be put in harm’s way.”
Two postal workers have died here in the last week of inhaled anthrax, and a photo editor in Florida died on Oct. 5. In all, seven people nationwide have been infected with the inhaled form of anthrax. In addition, seven people in New York and New Jersey have been confirmed to have cutaneous, or skin, anthrax.
In recent days, federal officials have acknowledged missteps in communicating the threat posed by the anthrax in the Daschle letter, and have since aggressively stepped up efforts at environmental screening and prevention — a situation that President Bush implicitly acknowledged as he signed sweeping anti-terrorism legislation at the White House today.
”Today I mourned the lives of two who — two postal officers, who lost their life in the line of duty,” he said. ”But I can tell the American people that because of the hard work of many in our public health offices, I believe we’ve saved a lot of lives, too, by responding as quickly as we have.”
The Postal Service said today that 23 other postal workers in the Washington-Baltimore area were in the hospital with ”suspicious symptoms,” which could turn out to be from the flu or other illnesses. That was the new tally after several people with such symptoms were released from hospitals today when tests came back negative while several others were admitted.
The C.I.A. said that tests late Thursday had turned up a trace amount of anthrax at its Material Inspection Facility, a building on the grounds of its headquarters in Langley, Va. An agency spokesman, Bill Harlow, said the amount found was ”medically insignificant,” or not enough to make anyone ill, but the mailroom was closed and several employees given antibiotics.
A test for anthrax in a mailroom at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md., also turned up a single spore on Thursday, said a spokesman, Dr. Ron Goor. The institute, which does not treat patients, specializes in infectious diseases like malaria, and does not have anthrax stocks on hand, Dr. Goor said.
Thirteen workers in the mailroom at the institute have been tested and are being treated protectively with antibiotics, and the mailroom has been closed for further testing. Because mail from the institute goes to and comes from the Army’s Medical Research and Materiel Command at nearby Fort Detrick, its mailroom was also closed for screening and four workers there put on antibiotics.
At an outdoor news conference at the Supreme Court, the Capitol physician, Dr. John F. Eisold, said that because of the contamination on the air filter at the court’s mail-screening center in Prince Georges County, Md., ”We’re making the assumption that quite possibly something may have come into the mailroom here.” The court’s mailroom is on the garage level in a corner of the building that is off limits to the public.
Tourists were sent home and the court’s 400 employees were offered testing and a 10-day course of antibiotics.