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Latest Developments: Anthrax

Kwame Holman has the latest on the anthrax story, after two Washington, D.C. postal workers died from anthrax-like symptoms.

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  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Flanked by District of Columbia and federal officials, the new head of homeland security, Tom Ridge, came to the White House briefing room this afternoon to update the anthrax problem. It now has touched more Washington, D.C. area postal workers.

  • TOM RIDGE:

    Two postal employees who work at the Brentwood mail facility here in Washington, D.C., have tested positive for inhalation anthrax. Both of these workers are being treated with antibiotics, and obviously our best wishes and prayers are with them and their families.

    We also know that there are two very suspicious deaths that occurred today. And here are the facts about both of these cases: These Brentwood postal workers were seen by their doctors yesterday; both of these workers experienced respiratory complications, became critically ill, tragically ultimately passed away. We are still undergoing final tests to determine absolutely if these two deaths were related to anthrax exposure. Their cause of death to date is unclear. But I'll tell you what is very clear: It is very clear that their symptoms are suspicious and their deaths are likely due to anthrax.

    Now I'd like to discuss with you just a few steps that we have been taking to protect the citizens of the District of Columbia and all Americans. First of all, soon after the first case of anthrax surfaced, CDC placed its medical surveillance team on the highest alert. This medical surveillance system monitors emergency room logs every day all across this country. And the purpose of the service is to track potential trends. When we put them on the alert, we wanted them to track trends dealing with anthrax-like symptoms. We will continue to monitor closely any suspicious cases in emergency rooms that may arise anywhere across the country.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The U.S. Postmaster General is John Potter.

  • JOHN POTTER:

    Our postal family is deeply saddened by today's news and shaken by the thought of terrorists using the U.S. Mail as a tool for their evil. These two postal employees joined a list of public servants who have died over the past two months while serving their country. Our hearts are heavy, knowing that two co-workers have become the latest victims of terrorism. It's clear to us, like other symbol symbols of American freedom and power, the mail and our employees have become a target of terrorists. It is equally clear that we must take extraordinary steps to protect them both.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    Washington's Brentwood postal sorting facility is two miles from the U.S. Capitol and now is closed for testing. This morning, chartered buses brought many of the nearly 2,000 people who work there and at another mail facility in Maryland to Washington's, D.C. General Hospital. They stood in long lines to receive nasal swab tests for anthrax and precautionary ten-day doses of antibiotics. One of the employees tested today said he often went into the special delivery area where the first confirmed anthrax victim worked. Barry Iverson said his family is worried about him.

  • BARRY IVERSON:

    They were concerned about whether or not I was going to get sick because I worked in close proximity with the guy that's over in the hospital. You know, right now I'm feeling better.

  • REPORTER:

    Some of the workers, the postal workers who worked at the Brentwood facility are asking two questions. Number one since the Daschle letter would have originated there they want to know why that facility wasn't closed sooner. And they also want to know why the workers themselves weren't tested sooner and the Postal Service spokesman said they were following the advice for the Centers for Disease Control so were federal officials a little slow in responding to the threat there?

  • TOM RIDGE:

    Well, I think we will always look to whether it's this threat or any other threat move to hasten and move as quickly as we possibly can. But let me give you the sequence of events, as I know them and we'll let the officials from the CDC or the Post Office talk about it. They followed the line back as aggressively and as quickly as they could. If the envelope was in the Senator's office that made it came out of the Dirkson Building. If it came out of the Dirkson Building previous to that it had been at the post office on P Street. P Street — as I understand — it was tested environmentally but the tests were negative. In order to get to P Street it has to come through the Brentwood Post Office. Thereafter immediately they put everybody, the hospitals and everybody else on alert to see if anybody presented themselves with symptoms. So I think they moved back, followed the chain as quickly as they possibly can. Obviously we're going to do everything we can every time we can to expedite that but I think they moved quickly.

  • REPORTER:

    I'd like to ask the postmaster general a question. Sir, out in the real world a lot of people worry not only about packages, whether to open a letter or a package, but they're worried also about the letters that they receive. Can anthrax be transmitted through the cover of letters or the envelopes, not the inside? That's my question.

  • JOHN POTTER:

    Well, we've been advised that if it's a sealed envelope that it would not transmit anthrax, but again I'm not the medical expert. I'll turn to the medical folks to answer that question.

    DR. MITCH COHEN, Centers for Disease Control: Much of what we've determined has been from the previous investigations. This is really a new phenomena. At first, we had no evidence that any of the mail handlers were at risk. So this phenomena of first having skin disease in New Jersey and now having inhalational disease is an evolution. Now how it's actually occurring isn't clear, and that's part of our epidemiologic investigation is to try to track down what are those kinds of exposures and try to eliminate them so that we can make things safer.

  • REPORTER:

    Are we confident that there's only one letter that passed through the Brentwood facility? Could there be more and is the investigation ongoing in that respect?

  • TOM RIDGE:

    The investigation remains to be very aggressive. I can't tell you the number of people they have assigned both within the post office and the FBI on the investigation right now. Again as this evolves, and that's what we're dealing with, as this evolves it does appear right now that the thesis today based on the facts we know is probably the same letter but we don't know that to an absolute certainty that I could stand up before you today and say I'm 100% certain today and I'll be 100% certain a year from now it was one letter. That's why they're not only trying to deal with the potentially affected post office employees but we're trying to find the source and determine if there was one or multiple sources; we do not have that information now. But right now it is consistent with the theory that this one letter could have contaminated the whole system. Whether there's others we don't know. Yes.

  • REPORTER:

    Have you considered curtailing the mail delivery in —

  • TOM RIDGE:

    Never.

  • REPORTER:

    — in Washington because of this?

  • TOM RIDGE:

    I don't make those final decisions but in talking to Jack Potter and Mr. Sambrato. I'll let them tell you what they think. They can say more.

  • JOHN POTTER:

    We don't intend to curtail mail delivery. We're not going to be defeated. I mean, the people are talking… Keep in mind, we have 208 billion pieces of mail a year. We've delivered some 20 billion since September 11. We do and we are pushing an awareness campaign. We are pushing an intervention campaign and an investigation campaign. We have no intent of… to stop delivery of the mail unless we have a situation where people we suspect anthrax. Obviously then we'll pull back.