WASHINGTON – Mail from Washington is being rerouted to two Maryland postal processing facilities after the deaths of two workers from what appears to be anthrax closed the District’s Brentwood postal station.
Officials said appropriate precautions are being taken at the Gaithersburg and Capitol Heights facilities, which distribute mail through Montgomery County and most of Southern Maryland.
But federal health officials also conceded Tuesday that the pattern of infection in the Washington cases has sparked concern that anthrax spores can be spread easier than was earlier thought.
It came as the Postal Service closed the airmail facility at Baltimore/Washington International Airport and ordered employees there to undergo anthrax testing and get antibiotics as a preventive measure. One of the Brentwood employees also worked at BWI last week.
Two postal employees at the Brentwood Processing and Distribution Center, the mail hub of the District, died this week from what officials said was probably anthrax. Two others who work at the facility have been diagnosed with the often-deadly inhalation form of anthrax.
The Brentwood facility likely handled anthrax-tainted mail that was sent to the Senate last week, exposing dozens of people when the letter was opened and the spores released into the air.
But there is no evidence that the Senate letter was opened when it went through Brentwood. That raised fears at the Postal Service, where Postmaster General John Potter said Tuesday that officials were told that a sealed envelope could not transmit or release anthrax.
A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conceded that the Brentwood anthrax cases are “a new phenomenon.” Postal workers in New Jersey — where anthrax-tainted letters were handled on their way to New York — have also tested positive for exposure to the spores.
“At first, we had no evidence that any of the mail handlers were at risk, so this phenomenon of first having skin disease in New Jersey and now having inhalational disease (in Brentwood) is an evolution,” said CDC spokesman Mitch Cohen at a Tuesday news conference with Potter and Homeland Defense Secretary Tom Ridge. “How it is actually occurring isn’t clear.”
The Suburban Maryland Processing and Distribution Center in Gaithersburg is located in the district of Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda. A Morella spokesman said the Postal Service was taking appropriate precautions and the threat of anthrax is minimal.
“At this point it appears to be very remote,” said spokesman Jonathan Dean. “Obviously investigations are continuing, and these investigations will determine the level of threat.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, — whose district is served by the Southern Maryland Processing and Distribution Center in Capitol Heights — said everyone involved needs to work together ensure the safety of postal workers and the general public.
“We should take all possible precautions,” he said.
Workers at the Brentwood facility were being tested on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, more than 2,000 workers were given antibiotics while waiting on test results.
The decision to close the BWI facility was made after one of the victims recalled something suspicious happening there, but Potter now says it is likely that the worker had been exposed at the Brentwood.