The Anthrax Saga Continues

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KENNETH LAMBERT/AP

Clean-up efforts continue in Washington

Anthrax has taken another life, this time in New York City. Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old worker at the Eye Ear and Throat Hospital in Manhattan, died early Wednesday morning, just as a new case of skin anthrax emerged in another non-postal, non-media worker. In what initially appeared to be an equally mysterious case, a 51-year-old accountant from New Jersey was diagnosed this week with cutaneous anthrax; Friday, investigators found anthrax spores in her home mailbox.

New test results indicate the anthrax bacterium has spread to the Midwest; spores were found on mailbags in Kansas, City Missouri. Nearly 200 local postal workers are now taking antibiotics. Overseas, environmental tests at the U.S. embassies in Greece, Peru and Lithuania revealed trace amounts of anthrax, while on Friday, a contaminated letter forced the evacuation of Pakistan's largest newspaper.

A troubling death
In New York, the FBI is investigating Nguyen's illness and death, attempting to re-trace the Bronx resident's steps over the last weeks of her life. It is a difficult task made even more challenging by the fact that Nguyen was so ill when she was admitted to the hospital that investigators were never able to speak with her.

Clues from the Nguyen case may well prove crucial to unraveling the widening anthrax mystery. As the fourth fatal instance of the disease, Nguyen's illness and death set off new alarms and raises increasingly urgent questions: Where is this bacteria coming from? How is it being distributed among people who do not handle mail on a regular basis?

[an error occurred while processing this directive]The latest cases challenge the perception of anthrax as a workplace-only threat. Tuesday afternoon the NIH issued a chilling announcement: According to a senior official, the agency is now "intensively investigating" the possibility that private homes are being targeted for anthrax contamination via the U.S. mail. This scenario, of course, would place new strain on the postal service, already stressed to the point of collapse.

The circle widens
New York authorities have closed the hospital where Nguyen worked pending the results of environmental testing, and are interviewing anyone who visited the hospital after October 11th. Officials are retracing Nguyen's path over recent weeks, hoping to establish the root of her infection.

Postal workers’ anxiety
Tensions in the nation’s post offices and mail sorting facilities remain high. Two more Washington, D.C.-area postal facilities tested positive for anthrax: A Friendship Heights post office and a retail store in Dulles. Employees at both locations are urged to begin antibiotic treatment as soon as possible.

Sunday, a New Jersey postal employee who works at the Hamilton mail facility was hospitalized with inhalation anthrax; the tainted letters sent to NBC anchor Tom Brokaw and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle both passed through the Hamilton center, and authorities are trying to recreate the path and timeline of the letters' travels.

Hoping to ward off criticism of the government’s response to the infections, acting New Jersey Governor Donald DiFrancesco ordered anthrax testing at 44 mail facilities in seven counties, even though some of the mail centers have already been tested.

In New York City, postal workers union members filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Postal Service, demanding the Morgan postal facility in midtown Manhattan be closed for thorough cleaning. Environmental tests revealed anthrax spores on four of the center’s sorting machines. While postal officials are insisting Manhattan mail delivery will continue on a normal schedule, as many as 30 percent of the central facility’s workers have been absent from work in recent days, a five-fold increase from usual rates. Postal workers in Florida have filed a similar suit, claiming authorities did not respond quickly enough to postal workers' risk of contracting anthrax.

Just as things couldn't get much more bleak for the USPS, Postmaster General John Potter appeared before a Senate committee Tuesday to tell lawmakers his agency will require several billion dollars to recover from losses tied to the anthrax outbreak.

More closures on Capitol Hill?
As New York and New Jersey officials struggle to deal with new anthrax cases, authorities in Washington D.C. have agreed to a plan to close down the Hart office building, where Senator Daschle’s office is located, in order to fumigate the entire structure with chlorine dioxide gas, a substance proven to kill anthrax bacteria. The treatment would keep the building off-limits for at least two weeks, but would preserve paperwork and computers. Testing continues at the Longworth office building; employees are expected to return sometime next week.