Thousands of postal workers tested for anthrax

War on terrorism: Outbreak
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The Independent US

Carol Cunningham was making no bones about the way she felt. "I am frightened to death of it," she said frankly, her face drawn and worried. "We had a meeting last Thursday to talk about things. And then I heard from a co-worker that someone was in hospital."

Mrs Cunningham was one of hundreds of postal workers pouring into Washington General Hospital yesterday after an order was given that staff associated with one of its main depots should be tested for anthrax poisoning.

The order that sent trails of worried workers in blue uniforms to the hospital in south-east Washington came after two staff were diagnosed as having the inhaled form of anthrax. But by yesterday afternoon the workers knew that in addition to the two who were ill, a further two had died – almost certainly from the disease.

Despite the calls for calm, many among the queues of people lining up for nasal swab tests and 10 days' supply of anti-biotics were anxious. Others, like Mrs Cunningham, were clearly terrified.

For the 59-year-old who has spent the past 39 years working for the US Postal Service, this latest twist in the bioterrorism scare that has shocked America has been particularly cruel. She counts Leroy Richmond – one of the workers seriously ill with anthrax – as a friend and she suspects she knows at least one of her colleagues from the large Brentwood sorting depot who have died.

"I just hope it will work," she said, as she showed me the plastic packet of small white tablets in which she and hundreds of others are now having to trust. She did not sound convinced.

The call for more than 2,000 postal workers to go and get tested immediately was made by Dr Ivan Walks, Washington's chief health official. If not alarmist, his words carried with them a sense of urgency. As he put it: "This is a different day."

He went on: "Anyone who was working in that back postal area during the past 11 days must immediately come to receive prophylactic medication."

At the centre of all of this is a letter that was sent to the Senate Majority leader, Tom Daschle, who revealed last week that when one of his staff opened the letter a white powdery substance fell out. Since then, about 30 people connected with Mr Daschle's office at the Capitol have tested positive for exposure to the disease.

Large parts of the Capitol, including the House of Representatives and the three Senate office buildings, have been shut down while experts carry out tests for further contamination and while staff are tested.

It is presumed that the letter to Mr Daschle's office must have passed through the government mail section of the Brentwood depot – the section where Mrs Cunningham and Mr Richmond work. It is this section that handles mail addressed not just to the various parts of the Capitol but other government departments including the White House.

The call to be tested was not confined to Brentwood. Staff from the depot at the National Airport as well as another airmail handling centre near the Baltimore-Washington international airport (BWI) were also asked to report for tests.

Brian Hannan, a maintenance man who had done some jobs at BWI, does not even work for the postal service. "We did some work there; they say that was where one of the people got sick," said Mr Hannan, 35, who lives in Baltimore. "They said better to be safe."

Mr Hannan sat in the front of a van in the hospital's car-park, fingering the tablets that he had also been given and told to take as soon as he got home. He seemed more than aware, like the others, that those small pills of antibiotics were possibly all that stood between him becoming another statistic.

"We have booked a vacation to Las Vegas and we are still going ," he said. "If God decides your day is up there is nothing you can do ... you just have to live life as best you can."

Many people wanted to adopt Mr Hannan's attitude, trying to push to the back of the minds a genuine sense of fear. Some were more successful than others. "It's just another day at the office," laughed Robert Williams, 49, a truck driver who works at the Brentwood depot. Then he paused and added: "It hasn't bothered me yet."

Plenty of people were angry. After all, this was a job they had signed up for thinking they were getting security and a regular pay cheque with little risk of danger. Sure, you had to go out in all the bad weather that the heavens could throw at you; sure there was the occasional threat from a snapping dog. But Anthrax in the post? Colleagues dying from coming into contact with a letter?

"I think a lot of people are feeling very stressful," said a 51-year-old Postal Service police officer, who said his position meant he ought not to give his name. "I am concerned because I am afraid that I am going to be taking something back home with me. I have got two young children, nine and 13.

"We were told that we will know in a few days whether or not we have tested positive ... It is stressful having to wait.

"People are worried. They are saying that they don't know what is coming next. It makes me angry that a lot of innocent people are going to die – people who have nothing to do with this disagreement."