The fears of many postal workers across the country came true yesterday when it was learned that two workers at the Brentwood sorting facility in Washington, D.C., have died from what is believed to be inhalation anthrax and that at least two others have been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. Inhalation anthrax is the most deadly form of the disease.
"It is very clear their symptoms are suspicious and they probably died from anthrax," Tom Ridge, director of the Office of Homeland Security, said of the two postal workers.
Yesterday, Ridge noted, "It''s pretty clear that we have casualties not just offshore. We have casualties in the towers in New York, we have casualties in the post office."
Postal workers at the Brentwood facility are off work today, many of them being tested for possible anthrax exposure. They all have been placed on a preventative, 10-day antibiotic regime. The mail at the facility has been moved to other sorting facilities.
John Potter, postmaster general, said the U.S. Postal Service will begin to use ultraviolet technology to sanitize the mail. Sources say the Postal Service plans to seek $800 million from Congress to help implement additional security measures to protect workers and the public from threats like anthrax.
So far, the Postal Service has promised that recent events will not interfere with mail delivery. Potter said there are no plans to disrupt or discontinue mail service.
Postal Service employees say they are scared and many are contemplating taking leaves of absence or calling off sick. Many point to the quick closing of Congressional offices last week, following the exposure of workers in Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle''s office, and wonder why employees continued to work at postal facilities where there was suspected anthrax exposure.
"Why can''t our employer close our facilities when they think there might be anthrax?" questioned one Cleveland postal employee. "Why can''t we all be tested, or least all the employees in Washington and Florida (site of several anthrax exposures) and in New Jersey (the source of the letter to Daschle''s office and to the office of newscaster Tom Brokaw) and New York?"
Cynthia Hudson, an employee at the Brentwood facility, said she and other workers were worried before it was announced that two coworkers are dead and others ill from what is believed to be anthrax. "They''ve been playing this down," she said of management, "telling us work was safe." Now, she''s not so sure.
Today, Dr. George Diferdinando of the New Jersey Department of Health announced that a worker at the Trenton, N.J., postal facility is suspected of having contracted inhalation anthrax. She is hospitalized in serious condition. All Postal Service employees in the Trenton, NJ, along with other workers from other facilities who might have entered that facility, (a total of some 5,000 employees) will be placed on a 10-day preventative course of antibiotics, said Diferdinando. Letters found to contain anthrax that were sent to three locations were postmarked from the Trenton facility.
Perhaps bending to the concerns of postal workers, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told Congress today that if anthrax exposure is suspected at any postal facility, that facility will immediately be closed, and the mail and employees tested. The government plans to "err on the side of caution," said Thompson.
Meanwhile, Senate and House office buildings remain closed, and the government says that some 28 Capital Hill employees have been exposed to anthrax.
"It''s dangerous," said Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO). "We have to be careful the way we all deal with this. We have to develop a strategic plan to implement at post offices, congressional offices, everywhere."
President George W. Bush, through Thompson, requested more than $300 million from Congress today to fight bioterrorism, including money to fund efforts to protect the food supply, including more FDA inspectors; provide funds to strengthen metropolitan medical centers to help them handle a possible influx of victims of bioterrorism; increase the number of epidemiologists to help diagnose cases of bioterrorism; stockpile more doses of antibiotics to fight anthrax exposure and increase the number of available smallpox vaccinations; and to help emergency departments and hospitals respond to bioterrorism events.
During the same hearing, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) asked Thompson if the government was aware of more widespread anthrax exposure than that reported in Washington, New York, New Jersey and Florida. Thompson replied that the government was not aware of anthrax exposures in other parts of the country, but added, "We are preparing for something much more dramatic" than what has already occurred, again, erring on the side of caution.
by Sandy Smith