WASHINGTON — The nation's top postal official acknowledged Wednesday that he could not guarantee that the U.S. mail is safe and advised all Americans to wash their hands after handling it.
The extraordinary public warning came as another New York Post employee was feared to have contracted skin anthrax and the U.S. Postal Service unveiled new safeguards, including gloves, masks and irradiation machines, to protect employees from anthrax-laden letters.
Meanwhile, a biological weapon expert said Wednesday that the anthrax sent in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) was a higher grade than that sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw.
Richard Spertzel, who headed the United Nation's effort to rid Iraq of biological weapons, said the contents of the letter mailed to Daschle appeared to be weapon-grade anthrax, which would have required highly sophisticated processing techniques to reduce the spores to a very small size to keep them from sticking together, so they would spread quickly through the air.
"The material that went to the NBC Studios in New York . . . is clearly a different product [than] that [which] was seen in Sen. Daschle's office," said Spertzel, who has decades of experience studying germ warfare. Twenty-eight people in two Senate offices tested positive for anthrax exposure.
Spertzel said that only three countries appear to have the ability to manufacture weapon-grade anthrax: the United States, Russia and Iraq.
Also late Wednesday, investigators said they found anthrax traces in a new section of the Senate Hart Office Building, raising additional concerns about the path taken by the anthrax-laced letter to Daschle.
Capitol Police said the anthrax was found in a first-floor freight elevator bank on the other side of the building from Daschle's offices, which are on the fifth and sixth floors. An aide to the senator working in those offices opened a letter containing anthrax spores Oct. 15.
"The tests came back positive for a new, fifth location within the Capitol complex," said Capitol Police Lt. Dan Nichols.
A local hospital announced Wednesday that it was treating a member of the media who had worked in the Hart building for possible inhalation anthrax. If confirmed, it would mark the first case of a non-postal employee in the nation's capital with the illness.
Since Oct. 5, anthrax infections have killed three Americans: a photo editor in Florida and two postal workers in the Washington area.
But there were also some promising signs announced Wednesday:
* Ernesto Blanco, a 73-year-old employee of tabloid publisher American Media Inc., was released from a Miami hospital where he had been treated for inhalation anthrax, raising the hopes of health officials that the often-fatal form of the disease can be beat.
* The White House announced that none of the first 120 preliminary test results on about 200 people at its off-site facility and its mail room had indicated exposure to anthrax spores. The tests, expected to be completed today or Friday, were launched after traces of anthrax were found on equipment at a remote mail facility that serves the White House.
* Washington health officials said they no longer suspect anthrax as the cause of illness in four postal workers they had been tracking, an improvement in their status from Tuesday. Officials said that no Washington area patients currently meet the threshold to be considered "suspected" anthrax cases and the 31 postal workers still under observation have a "very low" likelihood of infection.
In the nation's capital, site of the greatest number of anthrax deaths and cases of inhalation anthrax, the release of Florida's Blanco from the hospital was heralded as a positive sign after days of grim news.
"The previous belief was that once you got [inhalation anthrax], it was invariably and intractably deadly," said District of Columbia Mayor Anthony Williams.
"Today we know a lot more than we knew yesterday," said Dr. Ivan Walks, the city's chief health officer. "Today we know a man in Florida with inhalation anthrax went home, and we pray for the same outcome with the two postal workers here."
More Anthrax Letters May Exist, Public Told
But government officials urged Americans to remain vigilant, warning that additional anthrax letters could still be discovered.
Demonstrating once again that the anthrax scare is taking U.S. officials into uncharted territory, Postmaster General John Potter flatly told Americans that he could not guarantee that their mail is safe.
"We're telling people that there is a threat--that right now the threat is in the mail," Potter said in a TV interview.
But he added that there was only a slim chance that Americans' mail would be contaminated. "People should do things that are safe, and when they handle mail, they should wash their hands," he said.
In response to the threat, postal officials said Wednesday they would move quickly to distribute masks and gloves to up to 500,000 postal workers nationwide who handle the mail.