The postal service sent conflicting messages about the safety of the mail today as investigators revealed that a New Jersey postal worker probably contracted anthrax by handling a letter contaminated by a sorting machine.
MORE ANTHRAX-RELATED NEWS:
• Government to Stockpile Cipro
• FBI: 'Unclear' if Attacks Linked to Sept. 11
• Congressional Building Reopens
• No New Cases in D.C.
Sources told ABCNEWS that federal investigators believe a New Jersey letter carrier diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax was infected by a piece of mail contaminated when it went through a data bar-coding machine. After the revelation, the chief of the U.S. Postal Service warned there are no guarantees that any mail is safe.
"We have very few incidents of anthrax in the mail," Postmaster General John Potter said in an interview with ABCNEWS, "[but] there are no guarantees that that mail is safe."
Potter urged people to "handle mail very carefully" and wash their hands after opening letters to guard against cutaneous or skin anthrax infections.
"Mail and our system is threatened right now," he added.
But by the end of the day, the postmaster's office was sending a different message as Deputy Postmaster John Nolan told reporters, "I can tell you this: that today there are letter carriers throughout the nation, including here in Washington, D.C., delivering mail safely."
However, USPS Vice Presdient Deborah Willhite, within an hour of Nolan's comments, refused to assure blanket safety, saying, "Neither I nor any other member of the postal service management is going to stand here and say, point blank, the mail is safe."
Sources tell ABCNEWS that investigators believe the machine that may have led to the New Jersey woman's infection was contaminated after processing a letter containing anthrax-laden powder. It was first thought the woman — one of three workers at a postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J., infected with cutaneous anthrax — may have contracted the disease by handling one of the contaminated letters sent to the New York Post, NBC News headquarters in New York or Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office in Washington, all of which were processed there. But she was not working on the day those letters came into the facility.
The development raises fears that initially harmless letters could become cross-contaminated and then delivered to people's homes.
"The fact that machines can get contaminated does mean that a letter that might share a bin or a stacker on a machine could theoretically get contaminated," said Potter. "We think that the chances are very, very slim, but, … people should do things that are safe."
The mixed messages over mail safety as health officials in Topeka, Kan. said they were going to test all employees at a postal repair facility there. Officials said the postal facility received equipment in sealed containers six days ago from the Brentwood postal facility in Washington, D.C., where two postal workers died from inhalation anthrax and four others are hospitalized with the same form of the disease. Ten employees at the Topeka facility have reported having flu-like symptoms.
• Government to Stockpile Cipro, Irradiate Mail
The day after a remote White House mail processing facility tested positive for traces of anthrax, the Bush administration announced a number of steps today aimed at dealing with the threat of anthrax:
Health and Human Services to buy 100 million tablets of Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax, from the Bayer Corporation for $95 million, or 95 cents per tablet. The supply is expected to be available by January and, when combined with the current government stockpile, will be sufficient to treat 12 million people for anthrax exposure.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release $300 million in public health grants to the District of Columbia, Florida, New Jersey and New York for improved surveillance, detection and confirmation of anthrax cases.
Postal Service to begin irradiating letters and packages to neutralize any anthrax in the mail.
The contaminated facility is located miles away from the White House. Officials say traces of anthrax spores were discovered on a mechanical device known as a "slitter," which is used to open mail. Anthrax was not detected anywhere else in the facility and no workers at the site or at the mailroom at the Old Executive Office Building across from the White House have tested positive. The source of the anthrax was not known, but mail brought to the site is first processed at the Brentwood postal facility, where an anthrax-contaminated letter mailed to Daschle was processed.
No anthrax has been detected at the White House. Administrative officials would not disclose whether or not President Bush is taking Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax, as a precautionary measure.
• FBI: ‘Unclear’ if Attacks Linked to Sept. 11
Federal authorities said today they still do not know who is responsible for the recent spate of anthrax incidents or if they are linked to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.
"At this point, it is not clear if the few confirmed anthrax exposures were motivated by organized terrorism," FBI Director Robert Mueller told a summit of the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington this morning.
On Oct. 11, the FBI issued a public statement warning of possible further terror attacks in the United States "over the next several days." Mueller said today that that unprecedented alert was prompted by "information from a credible source" and that it was "conceivable" that the source was referring to the anthrax attacks.
"These attacks were clearly meant to terrorize a country already on the edge," he said.
Bush told reporters at the White House today he has seen "no direct evidence" that the anthrax incidents were linked to last month's suicide hijacking strikes on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but said both kinds of attacks had the same objective.
"There are some links," he said. "Both series of actions are motivated by evil and hate. Both series of actions are meant to disrupt America's way of life. Both series of actions are an attack on our homeland. And both series of actions will not stand."
• Congressional Building Reopens
A single congressional office building re-opened today, more than a week after an anthrax-contaminated letter sent to Daschle prompted an unprecedented shutdown of the Capitol Hill complex.
Congress was back in session for a second straight day, but this morning marked the first time one of a half-dozen nearby House and Senate office buildings was opened for business since last Wednesday.
A letter opened by a member of Daschle's staff in the Hart Senate Office Building left 28 staffers and Capitol Police officers in that building exposed to anthrax.
A sweep by hazardous materials officials turned up traces of anthrax in the Hart building, in the mailroom of the Dirksen Senate Office Building and at a mail-processing facility outside the Capitol Hill complex, where the Daschle letter likely came through.
The potentially deadly bacteria was also detected in the mailroom at the Ford building, where only House mail is known to be processed, suggesting another tainted letter may have been sent to Capitol Hill.
The Russell Senate Office Building reopened today and at least one House building was expected to reopen on Thursday.
• No New Cases in D.C.
Today, District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams announced that no other cases of suspected anthrax infection have surfaced in the city. The FBI said that "preliminary indications" are that all four of the cases of infection could have been caused by an anthrax-contaminated letter processed at Brentwood and sent to Daschle's office.
Meanwhile, The New York Post reported that a second employee — a mailroom worker — is hospitalized for symptoms consistent with cutaneous anthrax. Investigators are trying to track down the path of the anthrax as a letter carrier from a postal facility in Hamilton Township, N.J., suspected of having inhalation anthrax remains in serious but stable condition.
Three other postal workers at that facility — where anthrax-laced letters mailed to the New York Post, Daschle's office in Washington and NBC News headquarters in New York are believed to have been processed — have been diagnosed with cutaneous anthrax, the least serious, skin form of the bacterial infection. Tests have also confirmed the presence of anthrax spores in numerous areas of the facility.
In Florida, meanwhile, a man recovering from inhalation anthrax, Ernesto Blanco, was released from the hospital.
Blanco is a mailroom worker at American Media Inc., a tabloid publishing company in Boca Raton, where one employee, photo editor Bob Stevens died after inhaling anthrax.