By Marie Beaudette and Christopher Sherman
Inspectors fanned out across Maryland Wednesday to test businesses and postal facilities for the presence of anthrax, after mail was rerouted to the state from a contaminated District facility.
State investigators will check six businesses — including Marriott, SunTrust Bank and First Union Bank — that receive bulk mail from the closed Brentwood post office in Washington, while postal officials said they would check their own facilities as far away as Frederick and Calvert County.
Postal officials said there is a “below minimum” risk that anthrax could spread from diverted D.C. mail to Maryland mail — but they can’t guarantee it, either.
“We’re not going to lie to the American people,” said Postal Service Vice President Deborah Willhite. “The mail has a potential risk.”
Two workers at the Brentwood post office died this week of anthrax while two others have been diagnosed with the inhaled form of the disease.
Following those deaths, and Postmaster General Jack Potter’s statement that he cannot guarantee the safety of the mail, Gov. Parris Glendening said Wednesday that state agencies will inspect and monitor private bulk mail operations that were “downstream” from Brentwood.
At least six private bulk-mail facilities that get mail directly from Brentwood will be inspected, Glendening said. SunTrust Bank in Glen Burnie, First Union Securities Inc. in Columbia and Marriott International headquarters in Bethesda will be tested. The names of the other three facilities were being withheld until the companies can inform their employees.
Hazmat teams will inspect those areas at the highest risk, and antibiotics will be offered as a precautionary measure to any employees who request them, Glendening said. He said the goal is to “protect the health and safety of workers and ensure minimum disruption on businesses and the economy.”
The state hopes to have a complete list of Brentwood mail customers by Thursday morning, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
“We think something unique happened at Brentwood,” he said. The logical course would be to test other facilities at risk for exposure, he said, “so if we find nothing we can reassure people downstream.”
State officials said small businesses that usually get mail from Brentwood should call their local health departments.
SunTrust’s Glen Burnie facility has about 300 employees and gets 50,000 pieces of mail per day from Brentwood, said Scott Wilfong, president and CEO of SunTrust Bank of Maryland. He said part of the facility that handled Brentwood mail has been closed since Tuesday, and that workers in the rest of the facility now vacuum machinery, instead of dusting, and wear protective masks and gloves.
An Anne Arundel County team is taking samples from the SunTrust machines and high-risk employees will be screened for anthrax exposure, state officials said.
But Willhite said Wednesday that Americans don’t have to fear what’s in their mailboxes.
“On the risk management scale of life, the mail is pretty low,” she said.
Willhite noted that millions of pieces of mail have passed through the facilities in Gaithersburg and Capitol Heights, which are now processing Washington’s mail. The Postal Service would close the Maryland facilities — which serve Montgomery County and Southern Maryland — if it thought there was any additional danger, Willhite said.
But officials also conceded that they are not sure how an anthrax-laced letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle contaminated the Brentwood facility, since the letter was sealed until it reached the Hart Senate Office Building.
The Brentwood contamination followed the discovery of anthrax-tainted letters in New York that passed through a Trenton, N.J., post office.
“In the course of these three cities, we’re learning a lot about what mail processing can do to these letters,” said Patrick Meehan, director of the Division of Emergency and Environmental Health Services for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The postal service is now urging that those who pick up bulk mail from the back of the Brentwood facility report to D.C. General Hospital for a supply of Cipro, an antibiotic used to treat anthrax.
All Washington post offices and some in Maryland are being checked out, including the processing facilities in Capitol Heights and Gaithersburg, and postal facilities as far away as Baltimore, Frederick and Calvert County.
The postal service is not providing Cipro to postal workers in Maryland and Virginia. But the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene urged workers at a Baltimore/Washington International Airport airmail facility to get tested for anthrax exposure, because one of the dead Brentwood workers also worked at BWI last week.