Tuesday, November 18, 2014

October 9, 2001, Associated Press, FBI investigating how co-worker became exposed to anthrax, by Amanda Riddle,

October 9, 2001, Associated Press, FBI investigating how co-worker became exposed to anthrax, by Amanda Riddle, Associated Press Writer

BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) Federal officials suspect foul play rather than an environmental source is at the root of two Florida anthrax cases that have left one man dead and hundreds of co-workers getting tested for the disease. The FBI sealed off the offices of American Media Inc., where both men worked. During the night, a stream of unmarked cars entered the adjoining parking lot, where agents peeled off layers of blue and purple gloves and washed their hands with water from a fire truck.

The Palm Beach County Health Department tested 743 people connected to the building on Monday and expected 100 others Tuesday, said Alina Alonso, the department's director of clinical services.

How the bacterium got into the newspaper's office remained unknown. But federal investigators have eliminated the obvious environmental sources of anthrax, said Barbara Reynolds, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

In Washington, Florida Sen. Bob Graham met with CDC Director Jeffrey Koplan. "I asked Dr. Koplan what would be the likelihood that such a disease could have occurred without human intervention. His words were, `Nil to none,"' Graham said.

The concern raised by the death Friday of Sun photography editor Bob Stevens intensified after anthrax was found in the nose of a second employee and on an office computer keyboard.

Because of the second case, Dr. Landis Crockett, director of disease control for the Florida Department of Health, said foul play was a likely explanation.

Employees who waited for hours to be tested and receive antibiotics said the hassle was worth it.

"I may be able to sleep better tonight because I've gotten a head start," said Joanie Cox, 21, a free-lance writer for The Star tabloid. "I just want everybody to be safe."

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the federal government is continuing to investigate. "It's not unusual at times like this for false alarms to go off," he said. "Nevertheless, it will be the continuing, ongoing position of the federal government to investigate, to make all means available, to be helpful."

Anthrax cannot be spread from person to person, but all 300 people who work in the AMI building and anyone who spent more than an hour inside since Aug. 1 were advised to visit health officials.

The second anthrax exposure involved a mailroom employee identified by co-workers as 73-year-old Ernesto Blanco. Officials said he had anthrax bacteria in his nose, but he has not been diagnosed with the disease.

Blanco was tested for anthrax because he happened to be in a Miami-area hospital for what co-workers said was an unrelated heart problem. He was in stable condition, authorities said.

Only 18 cases of inhalation anthrax were reported in the United States during the 20th century, the most recent in 1976 in California. More common is a less serious form of anthrax contracted through the skin.

Antibiotics can treat anthrax, although the rare, inhalation form that killed Stevens, 63, is particularly lethal. Untreated, 90 percent of victims die within days.

Anthrax can be contracted from farm animals or soil, but the bacterium is not normally found among the wildlife or livestock in Florida. Stevens was described as an avid outdoorsman and gardener.

The anthrax bacterium normally has an incubation period of up to seven days, but could take up to 60 days to develop.

Newsweek magazine reported on its Web site Monday that the American Media office received a "weird love letter to Jennifer Lopez" a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. Inside was what was described as a "soapy, powdery substance" and a Star of David charm. The letter was handled by both Stevens and Blanco, according to unidentified workers cited by Newsweek.

One law enforcement official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the FBI is trying to track down the letter but does not believe it is a likely source for the anthrax.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have raised fears of bioterrorism across the country, and focused particular concern on the origin of the anthrax here.

While investigators searched for clues in the Palm Beach County case, health officials temporarily quarantined buildings in some other communities after receiving unconfirmed reports about the delivery of white powdery substances.

A fire station in Weston, 15 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, was quarantined for 12 hours after a man found an envelope sprinkled with white powder inside. The station was reopened Tuesday after authorities concluded the substance was non- toxic, said Todd LeDuc, a Broward County fire rescue spokesman.

Two office buildings were sealed in Naples for about three hours Tuesday, detaining more than 100 people. They were allowed to resume work when authorities determined a white powdery substance delivered by courier was non-toxic, said Collier County Emergency Management Director Ken Pineau.

"We're taking this pretty seriously," Pineau said, adding "I could probably drop a package of Sweet'N Low and evacuate this building."

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