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Officials widen hunt for anthrax

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Investigators offered new details about the anthrax used in the deadly mail attacks yesterday, as the bacteria sickened a State Department mail worker and federal officials widened the hunt for contamination to hundreds of mailrooms and post offices along the East Coast.

Test results from the spores mailed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle "confirmed our worst suspicions," Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said yesterday. The bacteria were the most concentrated and highly refined of the samples linked to the attacks in Washington, New York and Florida. Spores found in a New York Post letter, in contrast, were as chunky as "Purina dog chow" under the microscope, one expert said.

"Clearly, we are up against a shadow enemy," Ridge said at a White House briefing, "people who have no regard for human life who are determined to murder innocent people."

The toxic trail of bacteria leading from a contaminated Washington mail facility expanded yesterday to a new area postal facility. A State Department employee who works at an off-site mailroom in Sterling, Va., has inhaled anthrax, the most lethal form of the disease, Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday.

The 59-year-old man, who worked on the receiving dock, is being treated at Winchester Hospital in Winchester, Va.

Also, a test for anthrax in a mailroom in the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring came back positive yesterday, said Charles Dasey, spokesman for U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command. The institute, which doesn't care for patients, is three miles from the hospital at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Dasey said the mailroom at Fort Detrick in Frederick which exchanges mail with the institute, also was being tested.

Like many government mailrooms in the Washington area, the Sterling station receives its mail from the now-quarantined Brentwood sorting facility. After learning of the employee's illness yesterday, the State Department shut down mail deliveries as a precaution. Testing and treatment of workers were under way.

The number of Americans examined or prescribed antibiotics for anthrax exposure since the attacks began last month reached about 10,000 yesterday. Three people have died, all from the inhaled form of the disease, and 12 other cases of both inhaled and less serious cutaneous anthrax have been confirmed.

With so many hospitals and agencies involved, and some places using different definitions for suspected cases, the human casualties of the attack have proven difficult to track. At hospitals in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia, dozens of patients have been evaluated for suspicion of anthrax. Ten have suspicious symptoms, while another 23 have a clinical illness, but their conditions are most likely not related to anthrax, according to Washington officials.

In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital admitted a truck driver who has a skin lesion that suggests anthrax. GBMC discharged two patients yesterday and admitted another, a 51-year-old male postal worker.

Doctors treating the rare disease were given new guidelines yesterday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised physicians to treat inhaled anthrax with a cocktail of up to three antibiotics, including Cipro. Previously, treatment consisted of only a single antibiotic.

As Washington leaders moved to reassure a shaken city by reopening two Capitol Hill office buildings, public health officials were struggling to determine how widely anthrax had spread through the U.S. postal system.

Federal officials announced yesterday that they were expanding testing for contamination to all government mailrooms in Washington, additional private area businesses that receive bulk mail and 200 post offices from Washington to New York.

It was unclear if testing would be performed in the Baltimore area. Postal officials said Tuesday that environmental testing was planned at the Fayette Street post office, the Calvert Street annex and a Frederick facility. But officials said yesterday that they knew of no plans for those stations. In New York, anthrax was found yesterday on four mail-sorting machines at a Manhattan processing station that handles millions of parcels daily, the Postal Service said.

Other anthrax hot spots turned up in Washington yesterday. Anthrax spores were found in several new areas of the Hart office building on Capitol Hill, including an air conditioning filter, a stairwell and a freight elevator. Daschle announced that one wing of the building would be sealed off indefinitely, a move expected to affect at least a dozen or so of the 100 senators with offices there.

The challenge to public health officials is figuring out how to seal off the contaminated area while enabling staffers to safely occupy the rest. Anthrax spores in Daschle's letter were a little more than a micron wide, a size that would allow them to slip through most standard filters. There are 25,000 microns in an inch.

"I am very confident that we will be able to seal it," Daschle said of the affected area.

The anthrax-filled letter that passed through Brentwood, killing two workers and sickening two workers, is the suspected source of contamination at three congressional office buildings and a remote White House mail facility at Bolling Air Force Base. As of yesterday, 300 employees and visitors to that facility have all tested negative for anthrax exposure, according to Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman.

The continuing spread of anthrax is worrying public health officials, who are struggling to understand how the spores might have traveled. The infection of a State Department mail clerk only deepens the mystery. Officials said the clerk, who was in guarded condition, did not come into contact with the Brentwood station or the Daschle letter.

That raises the possibility that more than one tainted letter had been sent to the nation's capital -- or that the Daschle mail had somehow tainted another letter. "We cannot say that it was just one letter," said Chris Murray, an FBI spokesman.

Behind the scenes, government scientists at Fort Detrick and other laboratories admit they are struggling to tease clues from the minuscule quantities of anthrax recovered from the toxic letters.

So far they have determined that samples from Florida, New York, New Jersey and Capitol Hill are all the so-called Ames strain. The scientists know that the anthrax sent to Daschle was more concentrated and highly pure, suggesting a more advanced knowledge of biological weapons. The tiny particles make it more likely the bacteria could be dispersed in the air and inhaled more readily.

"When we look at these spores under the microscope, they are highly concentrated and very light. If given some energy from wind or clapping or motion in the room, they will drift in the air," said Maj. Gen John Parker of the U.S. Army's Medical Research and Material Command, which is analyzing the material.

The letter sent to the New York Post, one of three recovered by investigators that bear a Trenton, N.J. postmark and held anthrax, contained spores that were "clumpy" and less concentrated, officials said. A similar letter sent to NBC in New York had too little anthrax to be analyzed, Ridge said. Investigators haven't turned up the letter presumed to have delivered anthrax to Florida tabloid publisher American Media Inc., the site of the first fatal anthrax attack.

On the positive side, none of the anthrax DNA from the letters has been altered to render it immune to antibiotics. "The good news is this strain is susceptible to all the antibiotics we have in the U.S.," said Parker.

Despite these insights, the investigation appears to be characterized more by what government scientists don't know than what they do. Does the difference in quality of anthrax in the letters suggest more than one perpetrator? Does the fact that the strains of anthrax have matched prove there is only one?

"We don't have the answers," Ridge said.

Of the 1,200 or so known anthrax strains, Ames might be among the least useful to investigators trying to narrow down their list of suspects. The strain, experts say, is common in laboratories and animal populations across the United States and Europe.

Lawmakers who have received classified briefings said investigators do not know where the anthrax in the letter attacks came from.

"I know that there has been a great deal of speculation about Iraqi involvement," said Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat and chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "As of this point, there has not been a clear identification of an Iraqi role either in the Sept. 11 attacks or in the anthrax issue."

A report yesterday in The Washington Post said only Russia, Iraq and the United States are known to be capable of producing the sophisticated anthrax of the kind linked to the Daschle letter.

While the wait for answers might be anguishing to a nervous public, the White House is trying to emphasize that there can be no timeline for test results.

Sun staff writers Diana Sugg, Allison Klein, Gail Gibson, Frank D. Roylance and wire services contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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