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Background: The Anthrax Threat

A report on the official reaction to the threat of anthrax in the nation's mail system.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Postal workers in Washington, Trenton, New Jersey, and New York were issued masks and gloves today to protect them from airborne spores of anthrax. Employees in other cities will get them later this week, and officials said they might begin irradiating mail as early as next week to kill any trace of the bacteria. The Postmaster General appeared on several morning TV programs and urged Americans to be on guard when they open their mail.

  • JOHN POTTER, Postmaster General:

    We have very few incidents of anthrax in the mail and there are no guarantees that that mail is safe. That's why we're asking people to handle mail very carefully. We're recommending people wash their hands thoroughly after coming in contact, and to be aware of any symptoms that they might have on their bodies.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Potter said the processing machines could theoretically contaminate the mail. At the White House, which experienced its own anthrax scare when the bacteria was found at a remote mail facility, Press Secretary Ari Fleischer struck a different tone.

  • ARI FLEISCHER:

    In a country in which more than 200 billion pieces of mail are sent every year, now we have what is a handful of cases in which anthrax has been sent through the mail. Just by virtue of the fact that more than 200 billion pieces of mail are sent every year, and only a handful have, unfortunately, had anthrax, it is safe to conclude that the mail is overwhelmingly safe.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Despite no positive test results from those who may have handled White House mail, about 200 employees are taking antibiotics. Around the country, flags flew at half-staff at post offices in memory of the two Washington-based postal workers who died Monday. So far, three people have died from inhalation anthrax, with nine other confirmed cases of anthrax infection. Two remain hospitalized. As many as six more from a Washington, DC post office are in the hospital and may be infected.

    And a New Jersey postal worker is also believed to be suffering from inhalation anthrax. As many as 40 may have tested positive for exposure to anthrax spores. Thousands of postal and congressional workers have received either blood tests or nasal swabs to detect the bacteria.

    In New York City, about 7,000 postal employees were offered antibiotics, even though most of them have not been tested. The Brentwood postal facility in Washington, which processes most of the Capitol's mail, remains closed for cleaning and FBI investigation. At a late afternoon press conference, Washington, DC officials said there are other people who have suspicious symptoms. Postal Service executive Deborah Willhite said more people who visited the Brentwood post office should start taking antibiotics.

  • DEBORAH WILLHITE, U.S. Postal Service:

    I would like to encourage everyone, I want to be very careful about the language, because it very important, language is always important, large firm callers who come to the back door of the Brentwood facility, to pick up or drop off mail in bulk. You know who you are. You should go to DC General and pick up some Cipro.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson announced the federal government is releasing $300 million to help the affected communities deal with the anthrax crisis for hospitals, testing and detection. Thompson said the Bayer Corporation, the manufacturer of the drug Cipro, agreed to cut its current price for the government by about half, to 95 cents per pill.

  • TOMMY THOMPSON:

    Today, I am also negotiating with Bayer Corporation in order to purchase the antibiotic Ciprofloxin, commonly referred to as Cipro, to be available if needed for treatment in the event of a bioterrorism event involving very large numbers of patients. The bottom line is we hope to save the American taxpayers several millions of dollars that I will ask Congress to immediately redirect to state and local preparedness efforts. We also are accelerating the production of vaccines and antibiotics.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Thompson said the government's first order would be for 100 million pills, enough Cipro to treat 12 million people by January. The State Department warned Americans living abroad to be wary about the possibility of getting anthrax in the mail. The notice read: "While the risk of such attacks is limited, it cannot be excluded…Americans should stay informed and be prepared for any eventuality."

    The FBI is investigating the anthrax cases searching for those who sent the letters and for the source of the bacteria. Speaking to a meeting of the nation's governors and mayors today, FBI Director Robert Mueller provided a glimpse of the scope is his agency's task.

  • ROBERT MUELLER, FBI Director:

    We usually are involved in 250 assessments and responses relating to weapons of mass destruction a year. We've handled more than 3,300 in just the past three weeks alone, including 2,500 involving suspected anthrax incidents. And even though most turned out to be false alarms or hoaxes, we are taking each report seriously, as I know each of you in your cities are also. And those who are pulling pranks and hoaxes won't find our severe response to those all that funny.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Mueller said that 7,000 FBI employees are now working on the investigations of the September 11 and anthrax attacks. That's about one-fourth of the agency's workforce.

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