More than 30 Senate employees exposed to anthrax; congressional business curtailed
WASHINGTON (AP) – Thirty-one Senate employees tested positive for anthrax exposure, officials said Wednesday as the threat of bioterrorism rattled Capitol Hill. Hundreds more lined up nervously to be tested and leaders ordered the shutdown of the House and three Senate office buildings.
”We’re in a battle with terrorism, a new form of human warfare,” said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt. Officials confirmed evidence of exposure in a second Senate office – adjacent to Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s suite where an anthrax-spiked letter was opened earlier this week – as well as spores in a centralized mail room in a building across the street.
House leaders shut down operations through the weekend to allow for extensive testing. ”To ensure safety, we thought it best to do a complete sweep, an environmental sweep,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. The Senate announced plans to close all three of its sprawling office buildings, but in a gesture of defiance aimed at terrorists, made plans to convene on Thursday.
There was cause for bioterrorism concern elsewhere in a nervous nation, five weeks after terrorist attacks that killed more than 5,000 people in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.
The midtown Manhattan office of Gov. George Pataki was shut down after an initial test detected the presence of anthrax. The governor announced that about 80 employees had been evacuated. ”The odds are very high” that subsequent testing will confirm the presence of the bacteria, he said, although thus far, no one had become sick.
At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. David Fleming announced that preliminary testing indicated the strain of anthrax found in a letter addressed to NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw in New York ”appears to match the strain in Florida,” where one man died of anthrax several days ago and a second man is hospitalized. Fleming said it is not yet clear whether the Washington anthrax comes from the same strain.
But he also stressed there’s no evidence that the Washington anthrax is any more virulent – any more dangerous – than the strains in New York or Florida.
In the shadow of the Capitol, Daschle told reporters that 31 people ”had positive nasal swabs,” indicating exposure to anthrax. The group included 23 members of his own staff, five law enforcement personnel, and three aides to Sen. Russell Feingold, whose office adjoins Daschle’s on the fifth floor of the Hart Building across the street from the Capitol.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a physician, said that based on the number of people tested, ”maybe a few more” will have positive results for exposure.
Feingold, D-Wis., told reporters that none of his aides who had tested positive for exposure had been in Daschle’s office on Monday, when the letter was opened.
Congressional officials worked aggressively to ease public concern. ”There is no evidence … absolutely no evidence of infection at this point,” Daschle said, words that several other officials echoed throughout the day.
”It is treatable,” Daschle added emphatically at a news conference later in the day, and officials said the strain that was found responds readily to a range of antibiotics.
Standing at Daschle’s side, Maj. Gen. John S. Parker of the Army’s testing laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md., told reporters the powder contained a ”common variety” of anthrax.
At the same time, Scott Lillibridge, an expert on bioterrorism at the Department of Health and Human Services, said, ”There’s been some attempt to collect it, perhaps refine it and perhaps make it more concentrated. That seems certain.”
A law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the letters sent to Brokaw and Daschle both contained the messages: ”Death to America. Death to Israel. Allah is great.”
Three government officials said Wednesday, however, there was no evidence of any foreign or terrorist involvement in the powder contained in the letter to Daschle, although they continue to investigate that possibility. One official said there was evidence that could point toward a domestic culprit.
Long lines formed quickly as congressional employees sought tests and the three-day supply of precautionary antibiotics that health officials were distributing. Officials opened a second testing center, this one in the Capitol itself, to accommodate the demand.
Dr. Rema Khabbez of the CDC said in late afternoon that a ”couple of thousand” people in all had been tested since Monday. Of the results in hand, she said there were 31 positive for exposure and 155 negative.
Hastert and Gephardt appeared together at midmorning to announce that the House would shut down. The speaker made the initial disclosure that 29 people had tested positive in the Senate, and said spores had been found in the Senate mailroom. He also said evidence of anthrax had been found in the Senate’s ventilation system and tunnels.
Senate officials quickly spread the word that wasn’t the case, then suggested House leaders had overreacted with the decision to curtail business.
Hastert said House and Senate leaders had agreed on that course of action earlier in the day, but it appeared some senators balked, not wanting to give the impression of flinching in the face of a threat.
The CDC’s Fleming said it was possible more people in Washington were found to be exposed than elsewhere because health workers began testing very shortly after the letter was opened in Daschle’s office. Testing in New York and Florida did not occur for days or weeks after people were exposed, he said.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., provided fresh details of the episode in Daschle’s office on Monday. He said a staff aide picked up a piece of mail that had been taped on all four sides, and cut it open. ”And cutting, the end falls off, a little bit of powder comes out, falls to the desk, and there’s a note in it.”
He added, ”The note says, ‘You’ve been exposed to anthrax. You’re going to die.’ And she drops the whole thing on the ground, other people congregate, and that’s how they also were exposed.”
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