Anthrax test: Dogs first, workers last
By Fred Gaboury
Patricia Johnson, president of the 6,000-member Washington D.C.-Southern Maryland branch of the American Postal Workers Union, is angry – and she should be. Two of her members have died from inhalation anthrax and hundreds more may have contracted the disease.
Johnson said the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) responded immediately on Oct. 15 when Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) got a letter with anthrax spores, but waited three days before realizing that they should investigate the situation at the Brentwood postal facility whose workers had handled the letter.
‘They closed the part of the building where Daschle’s office is. They swept the area for contamination, shut the Capitol’s mail system down and tested 50 people who work there. They even tested the dogs,’ Johnson said.
‘But they told my members that everything was okay at Brentwood and to continue working. It’s like they didn’t give a damn about the postal workers who handled the mail before it got there. To them we are second-class citizens – only this time second to dogs.’
Abraham Odom, a package sorter at the Brentwood facility, agreed with Johnson. ‘They closed the House building down while we’re in [the Brentwood facility] inhaling it.’
The anthrax-infested letter sent to Daschle’s office also passed through the Trenton, N.J. processing center where at least four cases of anthrax, including one instance of pulmonary anthrax, have been reported.
There, union officials have complained that the Postal Service and state health officials did not act aggressively enough to contain the problem. Steve Bahrle, president of the local branch of the postal union, says that 19 of 59 samples taken from different parts of the Trenton facility showed signs of anthrax. Concern over the failure of the CDC to act quickly to protect postal workers found support from members of a Senate committee on Tuesday, Oct. 24.
‘I am very concerned about what CDC is doing and how they are operating,’ said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
‘Maybe I’m wrong, but it just seems to me that something broke down here. People are sick and people are dying,’ said Harkin. ‘Letter carriers, as well as those working in centers like Brentwood, have been issued masks and rubber gloves. Many workers complain that the masks are uncomfortable while the gloves are seen as a hazard for workers operating high-speed equipment.’
A spokesperson for the National Association of Letter Carriers told the World the organization was not taking a public position on the Brentwood situation.
‘We are working with the Postal Service to guarantee the health and safety of our members who deliver the mail and to make sure that the system works.’
A mail carrier in New England expressed the views of many when he said, ‘Time was when all we worried about was dogs.’