Mar 15, 2005 (CIDRAP News) Signs of anthrax detected by sensors at two military mail facilities in the Washington, DC, area yesterday prompted authorities to shut down several buildings and recommend antibiotics for hundreds of workers.
The precautions were taken even though the mail delivered to the two facilities was previously irradiated to kill pathogens, according to the Department of Defense (DoD). Officials said anthrax killed by irradiation could still trigger a sensor alarm.
DoD said a sensor at the Pentagon's Remote Delivery Facility, a separate building, detected possible anthrax. Later tests were negative, but the Washington Post reported today that polymerase chain reaction testing by the Army confirmed the presence of anthrax in samples from the facility. However, it was not yet known if the anthrax was alive.
A DoD statement said about 175 people who work at the Pentagon facility and another 100 who might have been exposed to the mail were being contacted, asked to provide nasal swabs for testing, and given a 3-day course of antibiotics.
An anthrax alarm also was triggered yesterday afternoon in a DoD mailroom at an office complex at 5111 Leesburg Pike in Falls Church, Va., a few miles from the Pentagon, according to the Post. The alarm triggered a lockdown in which up to 800 people were confined in the building until evening, the newspaper said.
The alarms at the two DoD mail facilities also prompted federal officials to shut down a Washington postal facility that processes mail for DoD and other government agencies, the Post reported. Although mail processed at the facility, on V Street Northeast, is irradiated before it gets there, health officials recommended a course of antibiotics for about 200 workers there, the story said.
Because of the prior irradiation, no pathogen detection is used at the V Street building, the report said.
The newspaper said federal, state, and local health officials were preparing to issue a notice urging healthcare providers to be alert for patients with possible signs of anthrax.
A Department of Health and Human Services official said the Army was doing further tests to determine if the anthrax found in samples from the Pentagon mail facility was alive, according to the Post. The tests normally take 24 to 48 hours.
The newspaper quoted an anonymous source as saying that mail moves from the Pentagon to the Falls Church office complex, implying a possible link between the two cases. However, a DoD spokesman told the Post he was not aware of any connection.
DoD statements did not say when sensors first detected possible anthrax at the Pentagon facility, but the Post said the initial positive tests were last week. The story said later tests were negative, but officials closed the facility and evacuated workers yesterday.
A Fairfax County, Va., news release said the Falls Church office complex remained closed today pending results of laboratory testing. The release said the public is not at risk for exposure.
Health officials were not recommending precautionary medical treatment for workers at the Falls Church building, except for a few considered to have a higher risk of exposure, according to a Fairfax County telephone information service.
Ironically, the Washington anthrax alarm coincided with the reopening of a Trenton, N.J., postal facility that had been closed since the letter-borne anthrax attacks in October 2001. Five people died as a result of those unsolved attacks, and another 17 got sick.
The Postal Service said the Trenton Processing and Distribution Center, a major center for the New York metropolitan area, reopened yesterday with a "new state-of-the-art Biohazard Detection System." Officials said more than 1,000 people attended the reopening.
The facility closed Oct 18, 2001, after NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, two US senators, and the New York Post received anthrax-tainted letters that passed through it, according to an Associated Press report.
Mar 14 DoD news release
DoD question-and-answer bulletin
Fairfax County news release