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Last Updated

05 Nov 2002

Source: Newsday, October 31, 2001.

Another regional N.J. post office is closed after employee develops possible skin anthrax

By LORI HINNANT, Associated Press Writer

BELLMAWR, N.J. -- A mail handler at one of New Jersey's largest postal facilities appears to have skin anthrax, raising more fears that tainted letters have contaminated the postal system and spread the infection.

The 54-year-old Delaware man is the first suspected infection in the state outside the Trenton area, where three anthrax-tainted letters were mailed to New York and Washington from the Hamilton processing facility.

Authorities closed the Bellmawr office Wednesday, saying all mail inside the building would remain there until it was cleared of any possible contamination.

A green tent was set up outside the building's loading docks for the environmental testing, which began mid-afternoon Wednesday, and the main entrance was closed off to the public.

Valerie Semola, who arrived at the Bellmawr office to buy stamps, was among dozens of postal customers turned away Wednesday morning.

Though Semola said she does not feel she or her family are targets, she now makes sure mail is opened outside and throws away any mail whose return address she does not recognize.

"I think it's just who happens to be touching the wrong thing at the wrong time," said Semola, who lives in Haddon Heights. "I'm not trying to be paranoid, but we don't understand this thing."

New Jersey has five confirmed cases of anthrax and one other suspected case. All but one are postal workers.

In the case announced Wednesday, state health officials said the man developed a skin lesion on Oct. 13. Blood tests were positive for anthrax antibodies and officials were awaiting results from a biopsy.

The man, who doing well and plans to return to work Friday, has the mildest infection so far diagnosed, Acting Health Commissioner George T. DiFerdinando said.

The Bellmawr plant serves 159 local post offices and delivers mail to 1.1 million locations in southern New Jersey and parts of Delaware. Mail on Wednesday was being rerouted through Delaware and Philadelphia.

Postal officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to open mobile laboratories where the 1,300 postal employees from Bellmawr could be tested, said Ray Daiutolo, a spokesman for that office.

John Sinnen, assistant postal inspector for the Philadelphia region, said test results would be made available as soon as possible.

"As soon as we know, the employees and the public will know," he said.

Officials tracing the trail of the anthrax have said the bacteria was found at the Hamilton plant and in the main Princeton post office. Both remained closed for tests Wednesday.

Mail can be sent between the Hamilton and the Bellmawr offices, postal officials said.

"None of these prove cross contamination, but certainly cross contamination is a possibility," DiFerdinando said.

Meanwhile, officials tried to determine how a 51-year-old New Jersey accountant identified with skin anthrax on Monday contracted it. The woman, who was successfully treated and released from a hospital, does not remember opening any suspicious mail.

Investigators' working theory is that the New Jersey woman contacted the disease through the mail, said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, CDC director.

"The risk from mail is not zero. It is very low but it's not zero," he said Wednesday. He said the New Jersey case was of concern because there is no known exposure linked to a particular letter or postal facility. "That low amount of risk may translate into cases occasionally such as this.

"This case we've seen in New Jersey of cutaneous anthrax without the kind of stronger linkage to a particular letter or particular exposure in a postal facility is of concern," he said.

In an interview with WPVI-TV aired Wednesday, the woman recalled that friends said her lesion looked like a spider bite. A doctor said it was anthrax.

"I don't think it's anything to be alarmed about," said the woman, who was not identified. "Just be cool, calm down, go see your doctor."

FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll said environmental tests were conducted Tuesday at the woman's home and office.

The FBI has interviewed hundreds of people in the anthrax probe and had not yet narrowed its investigation to a source in New Jersey or outside of New Jersey, Carroll said.

"The person could have come from anywhere," she said.

The infection of a postal employee at Bellmawr and the presence of the disease in Princeton -- where no one is ill -- may be cases of cross-contamination, Carroll said. Officials have acknowledged that the accountant's illness also may stem from cross-contamination.

Three anthrax-tainted letters sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post were routed through the Hamilton office. The anthrax in the letter to Daschle was processed with silica, making it easily airborne.

Nationwide, the number of confirmed anthrax cases stands at 17 since the outbreak began in early October. Ten have the inhaled form, including four who died. The others have less-severe skin infections.

The inspector in charge of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service's main forensic laboratory told The Associated Press on Wednesday that investigators believed only three anthrax-tainted letters were mailed, despite concerns from medical experts that not all the envelopes had been found.

"I still think we're dealing with three letters," said Roy W. Geffen, who runs the lab in suburban Virginia. "That's the best information we have."