WASHINGTON -- Anthrax probably killed two postal workers from a facility that delivers mail to the nation's capital and left two more hospitalized, officials said Monday as the country suffered fresh casualties in a mushrooming bioterrorism war.
''The mail and our employees have become the target of terrorists,'' said Postmaster General John Potter.
As evidence of bioterror spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all workers in 36 local post offices that receive mail from the city's central Brentwood station take antibiotics as a precaution. Officials said about 2,000 employees would be covered.
At the same time, officials defended their decision not to order tests for postal workers last week, when an anthrax-tainted letter was opened in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
''I think they moved quickly, as quickly as they could,'' said Tom Ridge, the nation's director of homeland security.
The disclosures came as congressional leaders announced plans for the House and Senate to convene on Tuesday. At the same time, the House and Senate's office buildings will remain closed, including the six where lawmakers and staff have their offices.
''The Capitol, of course, has been safe and we have ample reason to believe that within the next few days we'll be able to open up the other buildings as well,'' said Daschle, D-S.D.
At the same time, several congressional sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said preliminary testing had raised concern about possible anthrax at three spots in the Capitol during the day. One of the sources said all three were in the same room.
Daschle's office had no immediate comment. Capitol Police spokesman Dan Nichols said he would not discuss preliminary testing.
In all, officials have tallied a suspected three deaths and nine other confirmed infections from anthrax nationwide, including six cases of the skin variety and the other three the more dangerous inhalation type.
Nearly six weeks after terrorists hijacked airliners and struck New York and Washington, and with American warplanes bombing Afghanistan, Ridge said the nation was fighting two fronts in the same war. ''There's a battlefield outside this country and there's a ... battlefield inside this country,'' he said.
On a day of rapidly unfolding events, Potter said the Postal Service had stopped cleaning its machinery with blowers, a procedure that could have caused lethal anthrax spores to spread through the air. He also said equipment was being purchased that ''can eradicate (the spores) and sanitize the mail.''
And Mitchell Cohen of the CDC confessed that investigators did not understand how victims had inhaled anthrax because the letter to Daschle was taped shut. ''This phenomena ... is an evolution,'' he said, "... How it's actually occurring isn't clear, and that's part'' of the investigation.
Despite a heightened sense of alarm, hospital officials in suburban Maryland said one of the two men who died had originally been sent home from the emergency room, only to return a little more than 24 hours later and succumb quickly to his disease.
Dr. Venkat Mani, who leads the infectious disease program at the Southern Maryland Medical Center in Clinton, said the cause of death of the 47-year-old man had been listed as preliminary pulmonary anthrax and septic shock.
In Washington, the Environ-mental Protection Agency said it would use money from the federal Superfund program to help decontaminate the American Media Inc. headquarters building in Boca Raton, Fla. One employee of the tabloid publishing firm died of the inhalation form of the disease more than two weeks ago, and a co-worker is hospitalized undergoing treatment.
In New Jersey, the FBI sought the source of least three anthrax-tainted letters that went through a mail facility in the Trenton area. The three included the letter delivered to Daschle's office, as well one sent to NBC News anchorman Tom Brokaw and another that turned up at The New York Post.
Nearly three weeks into the nation's bioterrorism scare, the roster of anthrax victims stood at:
n One confirmed death of inhalation anthrax -- the Florida tabloid employee -- and the two other fatal cases in which the disease is believed involved.
n Three other cases of inhalation anthrax, the two postal workers hospitalized in suburban Virginia and a newspaper mailroom em-ployee in Florida;
n Six confirmed cases of the less dangerous skin form of the disease, including two who worked at the postal facilities in the Trenton area. The other victims have connections to the national news media, including NBC, ABC, CBS and The New York Post.
n Twenty-eight confirmed cases of anthrax exposure in the Capitol complex, following the delivery of the letter to Daschle's office. They include two Capitol police officers; two aides to Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and the balance employed by Daschle.
Beyond that, investigators seemed to be discovering a trail of anthrax spores in Washington -- from the city's Brentwood mail facility, to a Capitol Hill central mail processing site about a mile from the Capitol, and from there to the House and Senate central mailrooms.
There, anthrax has been found on two mail-processing machines -- one of them known to have handled the letter that was sent to Daschle. Authorities have not yet announced finding any other tainted letter -- meaning they haven't yet accounted for the presence of spores in the facility that handles mail for House members.
No mail has been delivered to any congressional office since the letter to Daschle was opened a week ago.
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