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Last Updated

22 Apr 2003

Source: Hartford Courant, April 22, 2003

Anthrax Levels Kept In Secrecy

Wallingford Had Nation's Highest Concentration

By DAVE ALTIMARI, Courant Staff Writer

Postal workers at the Wallingford facility were not told for nine months that the highest concentration of anthrax spores found in any postal facility in the country was found in their workplace, according to a federal report released Monday.

A General Accounting Office investigation found that officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state Department of Public Health and United States Postal Service knew that more than 3 million spores had been found near one sorting machine in the Wallingford postal facility in December 2001 but didn't tell employees until September 2002.

In comparison, the highest spore count found in the Brentwood facility in Washington, D.C. - where two employees died of anthrax infection - was 2 million spores.

"It is difficult for me to fathom why postal workers were kept in the dark about this level of anthrax contamination," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., who requested the investigation, said Monday.

"It's clear that postal and health officials, through their own missteps, put Wallingford employees at serious and unnecessary risk. We can only thank God that no postal employees died as a result," he said.

Neither postal officials nor the chief epidemiologist for the state health department disputed the GAO report's findings.

"We believed at the time it was the best thing to do because that's what the CDC and public health officials were telling us," said postal service spokesman Carl Walton. "Our specialty is delivering mail, not health issues, so we listened to the experts, and in hindsight we should have revealed more. We will rewrite some policies so that if something like this happens again we will be better prepared."

"If the employees think that something wasn't done right then that's what counts because their perception is the most important thing," said Dr. James Hadler, Connecticut's chief epidemiologist.

The Wallingford facility was at the center of the anthrax investigation in the fall of 2001 because of the death of 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren (case 23), the fifth and last person to die in the anthrax attack.

Authorities were trying to determine whether some of her mail might have gotten contaminated at the Hamilton, N.J., postal facility where anthrax-laden letters to U.S. Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, both Democrats, were mailed.

Investigators found no traces of anthrax in Lundgren's mail but did find a single spore on a letter that went to an address on the same mail route.

At the Wallingford facility, the area of high contamination was directly below a machine called the vibrator, the first piece of equipment on the sorting machine, Hadler said.

Officials believe a bundle of bulk mail came from New Jersey into Wallingford carrying contaminated letters and that some of the anthrax shook loose when it vibrated and settled under the machine.

The first two times the Wallingford facility was tested by the CDC the results were negative, but on Nov. 28 authorities using a vacuuming system found that four sorting machines had been contaminated, the GAO report said.

It went on to describe meetings over the next few days among officials from the three agencies as they discussed what to tell the postal employees.

Investigators knew on Dec. 2 that a high level of anthrax had been found in the facility. In fact it was the "highest amount of anthrax ever collected at post offices," according to a Dec. 7 e-mail from one of the CDC's representatives in Connecticut to other CDC officials in Atlanta. The contaminated machines were cordoned off immediately.

The workers were originally told that the machines had "traces" of anthrax, the report said.

Postal officials told GAO investigators that Hadler suggested that, at a second meeting with employees, postal officials say that "trace" amounts of anthrax had been found on three machines and a "concentration of spores" had been found on another.

Hadler told GAO investigators he was only offering a suggestion and postal officials had to decide how best to communicate test results. The Dec. 2 test results were the only ones that postal officials did not immediately release to the postal workers' union.

Both postal and health investigators said in their response to the GAO that they didn't reveal the high spore count for several reasons: The workers had already been told to take antibiotics; the incubation time to get sick from anthrax had passed and no one had gotten sick; and the contaminated machines were cordoned off and the facility cleaned.

"We believed the health risks for the postal workers had passed and nobody had gotten sick in October when the letters would have gone through the machine," Hadler said.

"We also knew that there hadn't been a cleaning of the facility that would have aerosolized the spores and sent them all over the place."

But several months later, in April 2002, more anthrax - trace amounts - was found in the same area where the original contaminated machines had been located. It was cleaned up quickly.

Postal workers did not get documentation about the high spore count until September 2002 when they filed a complaint with OSHA. By that time, the contaminated machines had been cleaned twice.

"Clearly there was a major dispute between the health officials and postal officials" about what to disclose, said John Dirzius, president of the American Postal Workers Union Greater Connecticut Local. "They just never thought they were going to get caught."

While Lieberman isn't sure whether the governmental affairs committee he chairs will hold a hearing on the Wallingford report, a national security subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-4th District, will probably hold a hearing in May.

"The focus of the hearing will be how well the government has done in identifying anthrax as a problem in postal facilities. It's important as we assess the threat that anthrax and other deadly pathogens pose we make sure we are using the proper methods in the proper places to quantify the threat," said Betsy Hawkins, Shays' chief of staff.