SCMP Saturday, November 10, 2001

Dying words spark new anthrax hunt


The dying words of a Washington postal worker have prompted inspectors to probe whether a post office handled a letter containing anthrax that - so far - investigators had not known existed.
Thomas Morris told 911 emergency telephone operators hours before he died last month of inhaled anthrax that he thought he had the disease, despite a doctor's dismissal. He said he recalled a co-worker handling a letter containing powder a week earlier.
He calmly explained his symptoms and said he did not trust the US Postal Service, according to a taped 911 call aired by CNN. "My breathing is very, very laboured," Morris said on the tape. "I don't know if I have been, but I suspect that I might have been exposed to anthrax."
Morris was one of two Washington postal workers who died of inhaled anthrax last month, setting off a massive investigation that has closed contaminated post offices and put thousands of workers on antibiotics.
Both men worked at the Brentwood mail processing facility, which handled the anthrax-tainted letter Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle had received a week before Morris's 911 call.
Senator Daschle's letter was sealed with tape. Until the Washington postal deaths, medical authorities had not thought that enough anthrax could escape a sealed letter. Nor did they have, until now, real reason to suspect another letter had triggered the Brentwood illnesses.
During his 911 call, Morris was composed, but breathing laboriously as he described how a colleague had found the envelope. He said he had not handled the envelope, but had been nearby.
He said he made repeated calls to postal officials about his concerns but he was told he was not in danger. "I couldn't even find out if the stuff was or it wasn't [anthrax]," he said. "I was told that it wasn't, but I have a tendency not to believe these people."
Deborah Willhite, a Postal Service senior vice-president, said: "We don't know for certain what he was talking about."
She was speaking on Wednesday as inspectors began interviewing Morris's co-workers to reconstruct the event. That is difficult because they do not have access to work records inside Brentwood, which is sealed awaiting decontamination.
"I'm not downplaying what Mr Morris experienced because we don't know for sure, but it could or could not be a significant lead," Ms Willhite said, adding post offices routinely handled damaged mail containing sugar or other innocuous substances.
Three days before his death, Morris had gone to a doctor who dismissed the anthrax worry. "The symptoms that I have had are what was described to me in a letter that they put out, almost to a tee," Morris told 911 operators, who called for an ambulance after he had described the envelope. "The doctor thought that it was just a virus or something; so we went with that, and I was taking Tylenol for the achiness. Except the shortness of breath now, I don't know; that's consistent with the anthrax."
Today, no doctor in America would reject a postal worker who claimed to have been exposed to anthrax, Dr Ivan Walks, Washington's health director, said. But at the time Morris fell ill, officials had no reason to be suspicious.
"To have that tape . . . lets us all know just how much different the world would be if we had known three weeks ago what we know now," Dr Walks said. "Anyone looking at that transcript and using what we know now to judge either his doctor or his co-workers is being unfair."
The recording reinforced criticism by unions of the response of the post office to the anthrax threat.
They charge that preferential treatment, in the form of instant testing and prophylactic antibiotics, was given to the more high-profile workers in the Senate office building, where the threat was immediately recognised.