Latest Anthrax Developments
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KWAME HOLMAN: Press secretary Ari Fleischer made the announcement this afternoon that anthrax had been found in the facility that handles mail for the presidential residence.
ARI FLEISCHER: This is a delivery site that is located some miles away from the White House that handles all White House mail. Test results showed it to be positive for a small concentration of anthrax. The facility has been closed for further testing and decontamination. Tests will be performed on all mail received at this site to determine its source. All employees at the site are being swabbed and tested. Mailroom employees at the White House will also be swabbed and tested. They are going to be going through that mail to determine what the source may be. It was found… Let me fill you in. It was found on what’s called a slitter, which is a mechanical device that opens the mail. It was not found on any mail itself.
REPORTER: Okay. And how can you be sure that no one else in the White House has come in contact with this letter and has been exposed to anthrax, besides the mailroom employees?
ARI FLEISCHER: Suffice it to say, as a result of many of the security precautions that have been put in place since September 11, we have high confidence that is not the case.
KWAME HOLMAN: Fleischer said environmental tests at the White House have come back negative. Elsewhere in Washington, yesterday’s suspicions became fact today: Anthrax killed two Washington, DC, postal workers. Washington’s Mayor Anthony Williams
WASHINGTON DC MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS: We now know that the two deaths that were reported to you and that you know about now are confirmed cases of inhalation anthrax, so that is information we are imparting to you now.
KWAME HOLMAN: The two men worked at the Brentwood mail sorting facility not far from the Capitol; 14 of 29 sites inside tested positive for anthrax spores. Today’s confirmations changed the nature of the investigation.
DEBORAH WILLHITE, U.S. Postal Service: Since these deaths have been confirmed to be deaths caused by anthrax, the plant has been officially determined to be a crime scene, which changes the reporting nature of the information that we get back.
KWAME HOLMAN: Two other Brentwood workers with inhaled anthrax remain in serious, but stable, condition in a suburban Washington hospital. Authorities also are monitoring four other Washington area residents with “suspicious” symptoms. District health officials expanded the population of postal workers who will receive preventive treatment with antibiotics. The new policy means workers from 36 post offices in Washington will receive the drug Cipro. At today’s press briefing, Mayor Williams and federal officials were asked repeatedly why the treatments didn’t begin earlier.
WASHINGTON DC MAYOR ANTHONY WILLIAMS: I think all of us can stand today and say that in light of the information we have today in retrospect we should have done a number of things earlier. I think we have new information now. There’s been new experience now. My understanding from talking to health professionals is that the science is changing now.
DR. RIMA KHABBAZZ, Centers for Disease Control: This is, as you know, has been accumulating and we’ve been on a steep curve of learning, but the accumulating science from the Florida postal worker investigation, New York investigation, and our investigation at the Hill did not lead us to believe that there was a risk of inhalation anthrax in postal workers.
KWAME HOLMAN: Also today, another suspected victim of inhaled anthrax in New Jersey was announced. That means post offices in three separate parts of the country now have shown anthrax spores.
DR. EDDY BRESNITZ, State Epidemiologist, New Jersey: This is a middle-aged woman, a mail-handler, who worked at the Hamilton Township processing center, who began to feel ill sometime last week, saw her physician on Friday the 19th and was admitted to the hospital for evaluation and treatment. Initial tests did not support the diagnosis of anthrax.
KWAME HOLMAN: Like their Washington counterparts, New Jersey officials expanded the scope of mail workers who will receive preventive treatment. The facility near Trenton is where the anthrax-laced letters to Senator Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and NBC’s Tom Brokaw were postmarked. The texts of the letters were released today by the Justice Department. They included these phrases: “Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.” And, “You cannot stop us, we have this anthrax. You die now.”
Today, Attorney General John Ashcroft was asked once again if the anthrax letters are linked to September 11.
ATTORNEY GENERAL JOHN ASHCROFT, : You don’t send anthrax through the mail without the kind of intent and conduct that’s, I think, fairly labeled as terrorism. And so we believe these to be terrorist acts. We are not able to rule out an association with the terrorist acts of September the 11th — neither are we able to draw a conclusive link at this time in that respect.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, members of Congress expected to have access to their offices and committee rooms beginning today. Instead, the six massive buildings on either side of the Capitol that House members and staff remained closed for a sixth straight day as anti-anthrax sweeps continued inside. Officials said no new anthrax was found since the contamination’s in a Senate office building last week and the weekend discovery in a mail sorting area of a House office building.
Members who had to conduct business were offered space in other government buildings, including the offices of Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accounting Office. Several members arrived there by shuttle bus this morning, having been told they could bring along no more than three staff members. Improvisation was the key for committee work as well. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson was scheduled to testify on anti- bio-warfare vaccines in a House Office Building. Instead, he invited members of the Government Reform Committee to his place– specifically, the Hubert H. Humphrey auditorium of the health agency’s headquarters two blocks from the Capitol. Thompson said the government is stepping up its response to anthrax in the wake of the latest deaths and exposures.
SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES TOMMY THOMPSON: We will be even more… Gentlemen — aggressive in securing the safety of our postal workers who may have been exposed to a tainted letter. CDC, the union and the postal authorities are meeting this afternoon in order to find ways to better secure the safety of all employees. And therefore, I am making it clear today to this committee and to the American public, the Centers for Disease Control, that when a case of anthrax does emerge, we will immediately move in at any and all postal facilities that might have handled that piece of mail.
We will build the scientific link between the post office of the postmark, and the recipient of the letter. In other words, we’ll not only immediately begin testing and treatment at the site where the letter was received, but simultaneously begin testing and treatment at all postal facilities through which that letter may have passed.
KWAME HOLMAN: Thompson also tried to head off growing criticism from some members that the public health system is not prepared to handle bio terrorism.
SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES TOMMY THOMPSON: I know some critics are charging that our public health system is not prepared to respond to a major bio terrorism attack, and I know that some state and local labs are feeling overwhelmed right now as they respond to people’s natural fears about what might be waiting in their mail, and I understand that our local first responders are also feeling overburdened, but the response from state and local authorities to each and every threat is continuing and will continue.
KWAME HOLMAN: Ohio’s Dennis Kucinich asked Thompson if there were additional anthrax incidents not made public.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: We need to know. I mean, wouldn’t it be comforting for the American people to know is this a widespread problem, or is it fairly localized?
SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES TOMMY THOMPSON: To the best of our knowledge, it is what we’ve seen so far. We have no intelligence that’s saying that this is going to be a wider-spread thing. But we have to prepared for it, Congressman.
REP. DENNIS KUCINICH: I understand.
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile a Senate appropriations committee had to hold its meeting in a little- used room in the basement of the Capitol, which was cleared for use yesterday. Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, the director of the Federal Centers for Disease Control, was questioned by committee chairman Tom Harkin. He hinted at the criticism from some postal workers at Washington’s Brentwood mail facility who said the government failed to protect them adequately from anthrax.
SEN. TOM HARKIN (D- IOWA): People are getting sick and people are dying, and we can’t afford to continue to have this happen. And so whatever happened at Brentwood, we just can’t afford to let happen anywhere else. We count on CDC — you’re our line of defense at CDC – to set out the procedures, the processes, the steps we take to make sure our people are protected. And quite frankly, as you can tell from my tone of voice, I’m a little upset about this, because I felt all along and assumed that CDC was on top of this. Maybe they still are.
DR. JEFFREY KOPLAN, Director, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What was troublesome was that mail was not opened there. So that the hypothesis that we had been working on all along that you had to have an open letter to spread this, which is… I hope you’ll agree with me, is somewhat reasonable – most things that are in letters are in that letter — and our past experience in other places was that: That only when it was opened did the person get inhalation anthrax. With that very first case, which was new information and very different from what we had been seeing, we immediately in consultation with the postal service, the station was closed by them, specimens were taken from all over, all of the staff were offered antibiotics and that was supplied. We had the material here in town and got it to them to take.
KWAME HOLMAN: Some members wondered today if the CDC responded more slowly to the threat to the Brentwood postal workers than to the anthrax discovery in the Capitol complex last week.
DR. JEFFREY KOPLAN: And let me assure you, we are health professionals. Our job is not for people not to get ill or die. So these are tragedies for us as well and not something we take lightly in the least. But you’ve got to know about the cases as well in order to take action on them. And one of these individuals had been seen, had relatively mild symptoms and wasn’t associated with the outbreak in any way or the Brentwood mailing facility, and progressed very rapidly, extremely rapidly and died before the medical staff could do much. Let me reassure you and say absolutely we use the same standards, we use the same approach and we try to be as diligent, as quick and as thorough no matter where or to whom these cases appear or where the threat is. We work in public health. There’s no favoritism. In fact it’s quite the reverse. We are most interested in folks who are less famous, less well off and less visible.
SEN. PATTY MURRAY, (D-WASH.): I’m curious. Are we now putting together a protocol so that the next time a letter appears some place we know immediately how to backtrack it?
DR. JEFFREY KOPLAN: We’ve been trying to put together protocols each day in this and have had to change them each day based on new information as it comes in. Absolutely. We’ve been working for several days with the postal service and with others to try to come up with what’s a rational and the best approach to take to make workers safe in postal facilities.
KWAME HOLMAN: Asked about the case of one of the postal workers who died, Dr. Koplan talked about the difficulties in diagnosing anthrax.
DR. JEFFREY KOPLAN: In this particular instance, when doctors or health professionals see people, it isn’t always obvious what that is. And unfortunately, in the early stages of inhalation anthrax, it can look like any one of a number of things that people see hundreds of cases of every day. And again, it’s easy for me sitting here, thinking that I might have thought, well, maybe it was anthrax. I probably wouldn’t have. If someone comes in with a cough or a cold and a headache, the difference now is I think that the level of suspicion is up all over. But nevertheless, it’s hard for me to find fault with the individual in that circumstance.
KWAME HOLMAN: Throughout the day, members worked on legislation on both floors of Congress. The House plans to stay in session tonight in an effort to complete a bipartisan compromise on antiterrorism measures that give new powers to the Justice Department.