Wednesday, October 24, 2001

Mail moving, but workers careful

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        While delivering letters, sorting packages and selling stamps, anthrax is all local post office employees can talk about.

        The Cincinnati postal district — which includes counties in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana — announced this week that about 80 anthrax scares have been reported since Oct. 10, including eight in local offices.

        Four employees have been tested for the bacteria, but all tests have been negative.

        “When they signed on, they didn't feel they were risking their lives,” said Bonni Manies, spokeswoman for the postal service. “I didn't when I signed on as a letter carrier.

        “But it's pretty much like it is in the community. Some people are really frightened and others are not.”

        As a precaution, the Cincinnati district bought $60,000 worth of masks and gloves — a 10-day supply — for employees to wear, though they are not required. And instead of using blowers to clean sorting machines, employees are using vacuums.

        “Mail's still flowing the same as it always has,” said Gary Gabbard, president of the local branch of the National Association of Letter Carriers. “But everybody's cautious.

        “When you hear news that two postal workers have died ... it makes you wonder.”

        That goes for employees who process the mail and for those who carry it to the city's doorsteps.

        David Kennedy, a letter carrier for the Westwood/Cheviot office, said he has not been wearing gloves. But the deaths of the two Washington, D.C., employees may make him reconsider.

        “I'm looking at a case of (gloves) right now,” he said. “If more cases are discovered, I wouldn't hesitate.”

        There is a buzz in the office and on his route.

        “There is definitely more concern,” Mr. Kennedy said. “Who knows who's a target? But the institution, it's the old adage: Rain, sleet, snow, it's going to get through.”

        While local postal employees Tuesday discussed the possibility of anthrax coming through one of the local branches, officials for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were defending themselves. The CDC initially opted not to test a postal facility after learning it had handled an anthrax-tainted letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

        CDC director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan said officials never suspected that anthrax could leak out of a sealed letter.

        “Yes, that concerns us,” Mr. Gabbard said. “But there's no way in the world you can track every little piece of mail. Being realistic is the approach we have to take.”

        On Tuesday, Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken and Councilwoman Alicia Reece met with members of the postal union and other officials to discuss ways to better answer citizens' questions about anthrax.

        “We would like to have a more coordinated response,” Mayor Luken said.

        Ms. Reece said the city's new safety and security task force created by City Manager John Shirey will meet next week with the health and social service committee to discuss its progress.

        The city may coordinate with the local health department to create a hot line for citizens to call if they have questions. The city's Web site might also be used.

        Mayor Luken said he also wants the local and state health departments to work together to ensure timely responses on the samples sent to Columbus for testing.

        “We don't want to alarm anybody, but we want to be ready,” he said.


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