Investigators are trying to determine if a letter that arrived in the mailroom of a Florida tabloid publishing company could be the source of anthrax bacteria that killed an employee. Robert Stevens, 63, died Friday of inhalation of anthrax. He was a photo editor at The Sun, a supermarket tabloid published by American Media Inc., which employs about 300 people. Traces of the deadly bacteria were found in his work station. A second employee, Ernesto Blanco, 73, who worked in the company?s mailroom, was also exposed to the bacteria. A third employee, who was taken to the hospital, did not have anthrax.
Law enforcement sources are checking materials left behind by the jet hijackers to see if they contain traces of Bacillus anthracis, the bacterium that cause anthrax. ?We regard this as an investigation that could become a clear criminal investigation,? says Attorney General John Ashcroft.
Stevens lived about a mile from an air strip where Mohamed Atta, a suspected hijacker in the September 11 terrorist attacks, rented planes. AMI?s offices are several miles from the strip. Both Stevens and Blanco were affected by the same strain of the bacteria, which also was found in trace elements on Stevens? computer keyboard. Law enforcement sources said investigators were unable to match the Delray Beach strain of anthrax with any on record -- the closest matches were a strain of anthrax from a goat and a laboratory-manufactured strain.
All people who worked in the AMI building or visited it for extended periods of time are being tested for anthrax at a health center in Delray Beach. They are also being given antibiotics and health counseling. ?For obvious public health reasons, we have decided to evaluate, to investigate and to protect those individuals that work in that building [and] those individuals who may have visited that building for significant amounts of time,? Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi says. He feels the risk to other AMI workers is ?low.? People who were briefly in the building -- dropping off or picking up packages, for instance ? do not need to be tested.
Blanco was admitted to Cedars Medical Center in Dade County last week after feeling ill and exhibiting flu-like symptoms at work. He felt so sick that co-workers drove him home, two counties away. Physicians conducted tests and began treating Blanco for pneumonia, but his case became more complex once the Stevens case came to light. FBI agents came to the hospital and questioned Blanco?s wife, while the hospital ran tests for anthrax exposure. Blanco is now in stable condition
Employees have been asked to fill out a public health department questionnaire, detailing their visits to the mail room, text or photo libraries. One question says: ?Since September 11, 2001, have you noticed any unusual occurrences at work??
?I?m asking the people of Florida to remain calm,? Agwunobi says. ?At this point in our investigation, there is nothing outside of the building that leads us to believe that anyone else is at risk. However, our investigation is ongoing.? Health officials stress that anthrax is not contagious and cannot be contracted person to person.
Unknowncountry.com Opinion: A contaminated letter is one of the simplest possible ways of delivering a bioweapon like anthrax. The letter may spread spores anywhere along its delivery route, and especially at its destination. This is a way of creating a great deal of terror without much anthrax and no sophisticated delivery system. However, it is unlikely that this method will lead to much illness, or any at all in a community that has been forewarned.
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