Dozens of people on Capitol Hill have tested positive for exposure to what law enforcement officials say was professionally manufactured anthrax, and a health official says strains of the potentially deadly bacteria found in New York and Florida appear to match.
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Two days after a letter containing a white, powdery anthrax-contaminated substance was opened in Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's personal office in the Hart Senate Office Building, nasal swabs from 31 people tested positive for the presence of anthrax spores.
Those who were exposed include 23 members of Daschle's staff, three staffers for Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., whose office on the fifth and sixth floors of Hart Senate Office Building is adjacent to Daschle's, and five Capitol Police officers.
This evening, the Senate Sgt. at Arms sent a letter to all staffers on the fifth and sixth floors of the Hart Senate Office Building asking them to go on a 60-day regimen of Cipro. Previously, a three-day regimen was suggested.
"I'm concerned for my staff. I'm angered that this has happened. But I feel very confident … about the fact that everyone will be OK," said Daschle, D-S.D., noting that no one on Capitol Hill is known to have been infected with the disease.
The House was set to adjourn at the end of the day until Tuesday, but Senate leaders decided to keep their chamber in session through Thursday. All congressional office buildings will be vacated to allow authorities to sweep the Capitol complex for anthrax spores.
Authorities said this afternoon that the bacteria does not appear to have spread beyond the general vicinity of Daschle's office.
"The exposure has been confined to a very specific area," Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, the deputy surgeon general, told reporters on Capitol Hill. "At this time there has been no evidence of spores in the ventilation system."
Senior law enforcement officials said today that a laboratory analysis of the anthrax-laden powder in the letter received by Daschle's office last Friday and opened Monday has revealed the substance was "professionally" manufactured, suggesting the powder was produced by a well-funded organization.
The officials added that further testing is being done to determine whether or not the material is "weapons-grade" like the varieties produced by state-supported operations.
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Sources have told ABCNEWS the powder has a high concentration of anthrax spores and is very finely milled, making it easy for the spores to become airborne and infect its victims with the often fatal inhalation form of anthrax.
"These are no amateurs," said one official.
Lawmakers say authorities have also advised them of the high quality of the material.
"We were told that it was a higher grade quality than what has been seen," Rep. Chris Shays, R-Conn., chairman of the House National Security Subcommittee told ABCNEWS. "It is an anthrax that has clearly been weaponized. This was an attack."
• New York, Florida Strains Appear to Match
Dr. David Fleming, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control, said today the strain of anthrax found in New York "appears to match" a strain found in Florida.