Federal officials looking for another letter that may have sickened a State Dept. worker

Monday, November 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal officials said Tuesday they believe an anthrax-filled letter that has yet to be found sickened a State Department mail handler, a theory bolstered by traces of anthrax in eight spots in the building where he worked.

The State Department said it would begin hunting through three weeks' worth of unopened mail, searching for a letter that could advance the anthrax investigation. It wasn't clear why that search had not yet begun, given that health officials have long suspected that an undiscovered letter was to blame.

``We have to assume that, one, there is a contaminated letter of some kind in our system, and second of all, that we will eventually find it in one of these mail rooms or pouch bags,'' State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday.

More than two weeks ago, Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it was a virtual certainty that another letter was lurking, undiscovered. But on Tuesday, the State Department said it didn't begin looking sooner for another letter because officials weren't yet convinced one existed.

For its part, the FBI said it didn't press for a quicker search because it doubts that a letter will be found even once they start looking, an assumption disputed by both the State Department and the CDC.

Also Tuesday, the last of six people to survive inhalation anthrax came home after 25 days in a suburban Washington hospital. Leroy Richmond, a postal worker at the city's contaminated central facility, said he was grateful to doctors who began treating him for anthrax even before it was confirmed. ``Timing was crucial,'' he said.

Four others have died from the disease, including two area postal workers remembered Tuesday at a Postal Service memorial.

In New Jersey, the College Board said the anthrax scare appears to have held up thousands of unscored SAT exams in the mail, and it offered high school students the chance to retake the college entrance test.

No new cases of anthrax infection have been reported for more than two weeks, though traces of the bacteria have continued to turn up. Eight mailrooms at Howard University in Washington were closed after spores were found, following a weekend when anthrax was detected in 11 congressional offices. The amounts were so small that none of these offices face a hazard, health officials say.

There was more concern after anthrax was detected in eight spots in the State Department's Sterling, Va., mail facility. Six of them were on a single automated mail sorter, suggesting that a letter containing a substantial amount of anthrax passed through it, Boucher said Tuesday.

The only other possibility is that State Department mail touched an anthrax-filled letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and became contaminated. But health officials have said it's highly unlikely that cross-contamination would involve enough airborne spores to give a mail handler inhalation anthrax.

Now, with a significant dose of anthrax found on the State Department mail machines, it seems certain there's another letter, Boucher said. He compared this undiscovered letter to the Daschle letter, which contained two grams of highly concentrated anthrax.

As a result, he said, the department was now planning to examine undelivered mail in Washington and in embassies around the world that passed through the Sterling facility and has been held since Oct. 24.

Boucher added that if an anthrax-tainted letter had slipped through before the mail was shut down, someone would have discovered it by now.

There was confusion about why the State Department waited for results from environmental testing to begin looking for the letter and why the FBI hasn't been more eager to find it.

Dr. Cedric Dumont, the State Department's medical director, said his department felt no urgency from the CDC or the FBI to move more quickly so the department took its time, not testing the mail sorting machines until last week. ``It just was not the highest priority,'' he said.

Dumont said that CDC officials were reluctant to conclude that another letter was lurking in the system until the machines were tested. CDC officials, however, downplayed the significance of these test results, saying the tests simply bolster their established theory.

``Our hypothesis ... from the first point that this case was identified was that there's got to be some probability that there's another letter that's gone through here,'' Koplan said Tuesday.

At the FBI, a spokesman said investigators had not searched through the mail earlier because FBI officials believe that, if there was another letter, it had already been delivered.

But Dumont, who has headed the anthrax investigation for the State Department, said there's no evidence of that. And Boucher added that if the letter already has been delivered, someone presumably would have opened it and noticed the powder or gotten sick.

``We have to assume that we stopped it, we stuck it in our system where all the mail is sealed,'' he said. ``We have to presume that we will be able to find whatever it is as we go through the mail in our system.''