October 15, 2001, Reuters - Reading Eagle, page A2, More cases of anthrax heighten bioterror fears; Hundreds of people are tested for the disease as the United States grapples with the reality of biological warfare,
Fears of a biological assault on the United States grew Sunday as top U.S. officials blamed bio-terrorists for sending deadly bacteria anthrax in the U.S. mail and said some of those responsible for the Sept. 11 hijack assaults probably are still in the country.
Hundreds of people were tested for the disease considered a viable terror weapon, biohazard investigators in head-to-toe "spacesuits" responded to public paranoia and some Americans stockpiled antibiotics as the United States grappled with the reality of biological warfare.
New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said on Sunday that three people who handled an anthrax-tainted letter had been found to have traces of the disease and a Florida tabloid newspaper publisher said five additional employees had been exposed [taking the national total of exposures from four to 12.]
U.S. officials emphasized that of those exposed, only two had actually contracted anthrax. One of those two died of the disease on Oct. 5.
With the discovery of a letter containing anthrax in Nevada, three states are now affected by the disease.
Four of six Microsoft Corp. employees who were exposed to the letter in Nevada have been given a clean bill of health, a Nevada health official said on Sunday.
Two of the six have not been cleared yet, and samples collected from them are being tested by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said Barbara Hunt, an official with the Washoe, Nevada County Health Office, during a news conference.
"We would continue to evaluate them for the presence of cutaneous anthrax" if the tests for inhalation anthrax are negative, she said.
Cutaneous, or skin-based anthrax, is less serious than inhalation anthrax.
A Boston Globe editor asked to be tested for anthrax two weeks after having received a threatening letter and after waking up on Saturday with flu symptoms.
Kenneth Cooper, the Globe editor who received the letter, did not appear to have health problems, according to an executive at the Globe.
"It would be different if there was powder in the letter, but there wasn't," Al Larkin, a senior vice president at the Globe, told Reuters. "I talked to him today. He was feeling fine."
Massachusetts General Hospital also informed Cooper that he had no symptoms related to anthrax. The results of Cooper's blood test are due on Tuesday, Larkin said.
In Mexico, officials said they were analyzing at least 18 suspicious letters received by Mexico City residents.
On Saturday Mexico's Health Minister, Julio Frenk, said that the risk of anthrax appearing in Mexico was "very low" and called on Mexicans not to panic.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said Americans had been rattled by the appearance of anthrax on the heels of the hijacking attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and U.S. government warnings to Americans to expect more "terrorist" assaults.
Thompson described anthrax-contaminated mail as bio-terrorism but said it was too early to blame the al Qaeda network of Islamic militant Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the anthrax could have come from a domestic source.
"It's a biological agent. It's terrorism, it's a crime. ... But whether or not it's connected to al Qaeda, we can't say conclusively," he told CNN's "Late Edition."
"There are a lot of people in America that are afraid, and understandably so, because bioterrorism has never hit America before," he said on the "Fox News Sunday" program.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said some of the people responsible for the Sept. 11 assaults were probably still in the United States planning other missions.
"We are doing everything possible to disrupt, interrupt, prevent, to destabilize any additional activity," he told NBC's Meet the Press. "We are on alert."
More than 1,000 people in Florida and New York, including tabloid workers and post office employees in Boca Raton and employees of NBC in New York, were tested or undergoing tests for anthrax -- a bacterial disease spread by spores and generally confined to sheep, cattle, horses, goats and pigs.
A spokesman for American Media Inc., which publishes the sex-and-scandal supermarket tabloids National Enquirer, Sun, Globe and others, said five additional employees had tested positive for exposure, bringing to eight the total affected in Florida.
"Health authorities have advised that five others have been exposed," American Media spokesman Gerald McKelvey said. "They are all fine. They have been reporting to work. They are taking their medication."
But U.S. officials said the five had tested positive for antibodies and were undergoing further tests to confirm exposure to the disease. Medical authorities said those exposed to anthrax spores could be treated with antibiotics and likely would not get the disease. Anthrax is not contagious.
Sun photo editor Robert Stevens, 63, died from the disease on Oct. 5. The other seven were positive for antibodies, but had not been sickened by anthrax and were taking antibiotics.
Stevens is the only known fatality despite growing concerns that the United States has come under biological attack following the Sept. 11 assaults that killed nearly 5,400 people.
On Friday, New York authorities announced that Erin O'Connor, an employee of NBC news and an assistant to TV news anchor Tom Brokaw, tested positive for skin anthrax, a less aggressive form than the inhaled type that killed Stevens.
On Sunday, Giuliani said a police officer and two lab technicians who handled the envelope that infected O'Connor were found to have anthrax spores in their noses or on their skin, bringing the total of New York exposures to four.
The three were being treated with antibiotics and were not in danger, Giuliani said.
Employees at three U.S. postal facilities in Boca Raton, Florida, that may have handled mail for American Media were being tested and questioned.
In Santa Rosa, California, four people were released from a hospital after testing for exposure to powder that spilled from two unmarked, unsealed envelopes. Test results were unknown.
Pharmacies in Florida and elsewhere reported a dramatic rise in requests for ciprofloxacin, the antibiotic prescribed for treatment of anthrax exposure. Public health officials supplied the drug to more than 1,000 people tested in Florida.
U.S. authorities said they would vigorously prosecute anyone caught sending hoax anthrax threats.