Health officials are preparing to treat thousands of postal employees with antibiotics — a measure many letter carriers and sorters believe they should have taken days ago.
Two Washington, D.C. postal workers have died from inhalation anthrax and two others are confirmed to have the deadly infection. In New Jersey, authorities have determined that three workers have cutaneous infection, the less serious skin form of anthrax. And officials suspect that five more postal employees could have inhalation anthrax.
Some postal employees criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for not providing precautionary treatment immediately when anthrax was first detected in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's office last week.
On that same day, a section of a Boca Raton, Fla., post office — which processed mail sent to a tabloid newspaper publisher where a photo editor died of inhalation anthrax Oct. 5 — was shut down and sealed off today after anthrax spores were discovered there. Florida health officials provided the postal workers there with the antibiotic Cipro. So far, all tests for anthrax have come back negative.
"They knew it [anthrax] leaked. They knew the employees were worried about it leaking," said Judy Johnson, general president of the American Postal Workers Union.
Postmaster General John Potter, in an interview tonight with ABCNEWS' Nightline, said that postal officials believed they were dealing with a granular substance and not a fine dust. "Based on that initial feedback, we acted accordingly, we did not think we had chances of or threats of inhalation anthrax in our operation," he said.
"We were told that in all likelihood that they [the letters] went through our system and did not break open, they did not pose a threat to our employees," Potter said.
But now 36 post offices in Washington, D.C. are being inspected and officials want thousands of postal workers to receive antibiotic treatment. And officials announced today they are offering antibiotics to approximately 6,000 postal workers in New York.
D.C. postal workers wonder why they did not receive treatment sooner, especially since Capitol Hill staffers were placed on antibiotics almost immediately. They wonder whether they have been handling dangerous mail for more than a week and whether the spread of the anthrax could have been prevented.
New Rules, Unexpected Cases
CDC officials indicate the reason they did not recommend treatment for the D.C. postal workers more quickly was because they are still learning more about anthrax and how it can be spread.
"The rules have changed, and we know that now," said David Fleming, deputy director of the CDC. "As soon as we were able to identify the problem, we moved quickly to protect workers."
In a hearing on Capitol Hill today, CDC Director Jeffrey Koplan admitted surprise that anthrax could apparently be spread through unopened mail. "What's very disturbing about this to all of us is that apparently closed envelopes can potentially transmit [anthrax] as well," Koplan testified.
Experts say health officials simply were not prepared to treat thousands of postal workers.
"The thought that we'd have to trace every postal worker and every post office just wasn't in the thought process until it became clear it had to be," said Allan Rosenfield, Dean of the Joseph L. Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
Apprehension and Resolve
Union officials claim Capitol Hill police dogs were tested before postal workers. And in New Jersey, postal employees did not receive immediate treatment until health officials tied three cases of skin anthrax to mail delivery services.
"The [United States] postal service should have right from the beginning said, 'We're going to take care of you because you've reported to work when you knew that you were at risk,' and they haven't done that," said Hamilton Township Mayor Glen Gilmore, who helped set up testing and treatment for his town. "Shame on them."
U.S. Postal Service officials said CDC officials wrongly assured them that there was no need to worry about an anthrax spread. No matter who is to blame, many postal workers are handling mail with precaution and fear but also determination.
"I feel like a soldier on the front lines," said Roger Newland, a Boca Rotan postal carrier. "I really just got to keep putting the mail through because if we stop or just walk away, the bad guys win."
ABCNEWS' Brian Ross and Jeffrey Kofman contributed to this report.