'No guarantees' that mail is safe, postmaster says

Sun Staff

Trying to reassure postal workers and an anxious public, the postmaster general moved to shore up the U.S. postal system against biological attack -- even suggesting that people should wash their hands after touching their mail.

"We're telling people that there is a threat -- that right now the threat is in the mail," Postmaster General John E. Potter said in television appearances yesterday. "There are no guarantees that mail is safe."

The Postal Service plans to begin installing germ-killing machines by Nov. 1, he said. To protect its 800,000 workers, the agency will hand out gloves and masks, switch from air guns to vacuum machine cleaning tools to prevent the spread of deadly germs around work areas, and use more potent antibacterial cleaning solutions.

As a precaution, some postal facilities in Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey will be tested for anthrax, the agency said yesterday, including the Baltimore main branch and post offices in Frederick, Gaithersburg and Waldorf. Set to begin today, the testing is being done because those stations receive mail from facilities in Washington and New Jersey where the bacteria have been found.

Stung by criticism over their response to the anthrax attacks that have sickened a few Americans but frightened many more, federal officials scrambled to strengthen the nation's defenses against bioterrorism.

The government announced a deal with the maker of anthrax-fighting drug Cipro to supply enough of the antibiotic for 12 million people by Jan. 1.

No new confirmed anthrax infections surfaced yesterday. Doctors are monitoring about 30 people hospitalized in the Washington region, including two at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center in Towson and another last night, because of skin lesions, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Health officials say they don't expect all those illnesses to be diagnosed as anthrax.

"We're investigating a lot of cases," said Ivan Walks, Washington's chief health officer, in a television interview last night. "But we want every case that is suspected to be reported."

Yesterday, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continued their sweep of the Brentwood Central Mail Facility in Washington, where anthrax spores have turned up in numerous areas.

Investigators believe the building was contaminated by a letter that passed through the sorting center on its way from Trenton, N.J., to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle earlier this month. The letter was among the suspected mail attacks in the past month that have claimed three lives, sickened at least nine other Americans and forced thousands more to swallow a daily regimen of antibiotics.

The trail of contamination extended to an off-site White House mail screening station, where trace amounts of anthrax were found Tuesday. Preliminary tests of 120 workers at the White House mail room and the screening station, at Bolling Air Force Base, came back negative for the disease, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said yesterday.

All mail headed to the White House has been held at an off-site mail center since Oct. 11.

The U.S. Postal Service advised people who worked in mailrooms at institutions that receive bulk mail from the Brentwood facility to get antibiotics at D.C. General Hospital.

Such institutions include the Library of Congress, the Georgetown University Law Library and the Humane Society. The recommendation extends to about 200 employees.

In announcing the new safeguards for the postal service yesterday, Potter provided few details about the proposed germ-killing technology. He said only that the machines would be expensive and that the agency has set aside $200 million to purchase or lease the new equipment.

"This new technology won't be cheap, but we are committed to spending what it takes to make the mail safe," Potter said.

Several kinds of radiation could be used to sterilize mail, experts said yesterday, including gamma rays and X-rays. But industry experts said the most practical choice might be electron-beam radiation, which is generally faster than the other two technologies.

Titan Corp. of San Diego, which makes an electron-beam sanitizer used in the food industry called SureBeam, says its equipment has been proven to kill anthrax spores and can sterilize 18,000 kilograms of ground beef in a few seconds.

If high-volume equipment were set up at postal facilities, it would cost about 1 cent per letter to sterilize mail, the company says.

While the postal service hasn't announced whose technology it will buy, the machines would likely be bulky, much like X-ray machines in airports.

Postal officials yesterday also emphasized a more low-tech way mail recipients can combat biological agents such as anthrax.

"We believe that people should wash their hands in soap and water after they handle their mail every day," in case there is a dangerous substance on the envelope, said Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice president.

But she and Potter emphasized that they believe the chance of contracting anthrax by touching mail is minuscule.

"Life is filled with risks. You could die crossing the street, you could die driving a car," Potter said on CNN.

The protective moves announced yesterday by the post office were supplemented by efforts to strengthen the nation's stockpiles of antibiotics.

Yesterday, the government announced it will buy 100 million Cipro pills at 95 cents apiece from Bayer Corp., the German pharmaceutical giant that holds the patent on the drug. The price is $95 million cheaper than Bayer's original price, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

The money to buy the extra Cipro is pending before Congress as part of a larger bioterrorism response bill.

Already, thousands of people from New York to Florida who might have been exposed to the deadly bacteria are receiving the drug as a precaution.

Yesterday, Washington-area hospitals were closely watching any patients who complained of fever, coughing and other flu-like symptoms and had known risk factors -- such as a job at the Brentwood post office or contact with suspicious mail.

The District of Columbia Health Department said 11 patients were being seen at hospitals with symptoms that "could suggest anthrax," while an additional 20 were being evaluated with milder symptoms that were probably not related to anthrax.

The unidentified woman admitted to GBMC yesterday was a Brentwood postal worker who was suffering from fever and breathing problems. Dr. John Wogan, chairman of emergency medicine, said it was too early to say whether she had inhalational anthrax, the most serious form of the disease, but she was being given antibiotics.

A 60-year-old man, also a Brentwood postal worker, was still under treatment after being admitted Tuesday.

Initial testing late last night on the patient at Johns Hopkins Hospital turned out negative for anthrax. Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, said further testing was being done on the middle-aged man, who works at an unidentified post office.

Other cases were scattered among Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, the Washington Hospital Center and Greater Southeast Community Hospital in Washington. Each was awaiting test results on several patients.

Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., has been treating the two confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax among Brentwood workers. Two Prince George's County men died this week from the disease.

In New Jersey, a female postal worker is hospitalized and being treated for a suspected case of inhalational anthrax. A New York Post employee is suspected of having cutaneous anthrax, a milder form of the disease, the paper announced yesterday.

The closure of the Brentwood sorting center has disrupted mail service in Washington and forced the Postal Service to divert the capital's mail to at least five other distribution centers from Merifield, Va, including Baltimore's Fayette Street station.

Officials continued to talk about a relationship between the anthrax outbreak and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. While hard evidence might be lacking, President Bush suggested yesterday that there was a link.

"Both series of actions are meant to disrupt Americans' way of life. Both series of actions are an attack on our homeland," said Bush, speaking at Glen Burnie publishing company.

Administration officials have acknowledged some shortcomings in their response to the attacks. Surgeon General David Satcher said yesterday that medical experts didn't realize an unopened envelope containing anthrax could endanger postal workers.

"The fact of the matter is that we were wrong because we haven't been here before and we're learning together," Satcher said on the Today show.

He also said officials were considering whether to vaccinate postal employees in high-risk areas. Under current federal guidelines, only the military is vaccinated against the disease.

Sun staff writers Scott Shane, Frank Roylance, Jonathan Bor, Diana Sugg, Tim Craig, Michael Dresser and Michael Scarcella, and wire services contributed to this article.

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