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Cures for the privileged? government officials receive anthrax treatment prior to post office employees. (Washington Report).

Over the past few months or so, the hazards of handling mail for a living have increased exponentially. And while safety measures are being put in place in the Senate and other government offices, many are questioning whether mailroom and post office employees in Washington, D.C.--many of whom are African American--are receiving a similar degree of protection.

The Bush administration was recently criticized for waiting three days after the discovery of the anthrax-laden letter addressed to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle before ordering testing at the central postal facility for the nation's capital. Anthrax is spread by spores, and without quick antibiotic treatment, more than 80% of people who contract the severe inhalation form of the condition die. Postal workers Thomas Morris Jr. and Joseph Curseen Jr. died from anthrax exposure in late October. Several other postal employees remain hospitalized. As of early November, four deaths were attributed to the bacteria.

Dr. Ron Walters, distinguished leadership scholar and professor of political sciences at the University of Maryland, believes this case demonstrated the difference between white-collar Washington and the blue-collar District of Columbia. "It was botched, and would seem to have the smell of racism because 80% of the people who work in [the postal office in the Brentwood section of Washington] were African American," he says. "There was no thought given to the fact that [postal workers] should be immediately tested because all the focus went to the Senate and its staff."

Since the incidents, postal officials announced plans to purchase electron-beam devices to sanitize letters and packages. The equipment will be used first in the nation's capital, where the anthrax scare has spread from mail centers for Congress and the White House to the Supreme Court and the CIA. The U.S. Postal Service also purchased 4.8 million facemasks and 90 million pairs of rubber gloves.

But Walters believes these steps are insufficient because "there's not enough [anthrax protection and detection equipment] to go around," he says. Initially, the equipment will be used on mail going to certain "high-priority" federal agencies and government offices, such as the FBI headquarters, and the Senate and congressional offices.

Walters says that embarrassment over the handling of the initial exposures will prompt the U.S. government to increase the level of protection at mail-handling facilities. "I think now mailroom people will get a fair shake because [the government] has been embarrassed, and got the message," he says. "The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) is sort of learning things as they go along regarding anthrax."

April Bell, a spokesperson for the CDC, points out that the agency reacted as quickly as possible. "In D.C., as soon as we received confirmation of a case [of anthrax], we immediately acted. There's been great cooperation between local and state [governments], and the CDC," she says.

She says the agency is learning more about how the spores spread and how to treat it. "[Anthrax] used to be 89% fatal, and now we've had two people who developed inhalation anthrax and survived," Bell says.

Whether it's a case of the government looking out for its own first, or simply a lack of knowledge about the spread of anthrax, there's little argument that we must have more stringent safety measures in the Postal Service system.

EDITED BY Alan Hughes E-mail:
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Author:Hughes, Alan
Publication:Black Enterprise
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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