A second employee of American Media Inc., the Florida-based publisher of several supermarket tabloids, has been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax, state health officials announced Monday — meanwhile, government and network sources said the 7-month-old child of an ABC News producer has the skin form of anthrax.
Ernesto Blanco, a 73-year-old mailroom employee who had previously been hospitalized after testing positive for exposure to anthrax, has become ill with the usually fatal disease, but officials said they are optimistic that he will recover. One of Blanco's co-workers, Robert Stevens, died Oct. 5 of inhalation anthrax.
"[Blanco's] condition is improving and the public health officials are encouraged by his progress," a Florida Department of Health press release said. Officials had earlier said they didn't think Blanco had anthrax, but pneumonia.
After Stevens became ill, anthrax spores were then found in the building's mailroom and on Steven's computer keyboard. Besides Blanco and Stevens, up to five other AMI employees have tested positive for exposure to anthrax, but none of the others have come down with the disease. A second round of blood tests for more than 300 of the company's employees is expected this week.
The young boy in New York was responding to antibiotics and is expected to recover, ABC News President David Westin said at a news conference. "The prognosis is excellent," he said.
ABC is the second major news organization in New York to report an anthrax case in the past three days. Authorities are also investigating a letter that apparently infected an NBC employee with the same form of anthrax last week. Like the boy, she is also expected to recover.
Authorities did not discuss the source of the germ involving the child. Westin said the network is operating under the assumption that the exposure happened at its offices on West 66th Street.
The child visited the ABC newsroom in the last few weeks, probably on Sept. 28, Westin said. He developed a rash, and was hospitalized with an unknown ailment soon after the visit.
The boy was believed to have been on two floors of the ABC building for a couple of hours, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said. Westin said the child is the son of a female producer, but did not release names. Giuliani said investigators would be interviewing ABC employees to recreate the circumstances in which the child may have been exposed.
The child has skin-contracted anthrax — not the more lethal inhaled form that infected two Florida men, killing one. Westin said officials learned of the diagnosis Monday evening through blood tests and a biopsy.
New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said police will go to media outlets in the city to make sure they are free of anthrax. Giuliani said there would be an environmental review "to make sure the premises and the area are safe."
Antrax Scare Hits the Hill
A letter opened Monday in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle "had anthrax in it," President Bush said. The envelope was field-tested shortly after being received, and the staffers who were exposed were being treated, he said.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Bush said "there may be some possible link" between Usama bin Laden and a recent flurry of anthrax-related developments.
"I wouldn't put it past him but we don't have any hard evidence," Bush said.
On Sunday, Giuliani said a police officer and two lab technicians involved in an investigation at NBC's New York headquarters tested positive for exposure to the anthrax bacterium.
In Nevada, six people who may have come into contact with a contaminated letter at a Microsoft office tested negative.
The anthrax scare began in Florida Oct. 4 when it was confirmed that Stevens, an editor at the tabloid the Sun, had contracted the dangerous inhaled form of the disease. He died the next day, the first such death in the United States since 1976.
No Al Qaeda Link — Yet
In Washington, Attorney General John Ashcroft said it was premature "to decide whether there is a direct link" to bin Laden's terrorist network, but "we should consider this potential that it is linked."
Some of the Sept. 11 hijackers spent time in Florida, and the FBI said the wife of the Sun's editor, who works as a real estate agent, rented apartments to two of them.
"Right. That's true," FBI spokeswoman Judy Orihuela said early Monday when asked of reports that Gloria Irish rented apartments in Delray Beach, Fla., to Hamza Alghamdi and Marwan al-Shehhi this summer. Her husband is Sun editor Michael Irish.
"Right now we consider it a coincidence," said Orihuela, spokeswoman for the FBI's Miami regional office, "because we don't have any tie between the anthrax and the terrorists." Gloria Irish said she would have no comment.
In New York, Giuliani said the officer and two technicians were exposed while working on the anthrax case involving Erin O'Connor, 38, NBC anchor Tom Brokaw' assistant. She developed a case of skin-contracted anthrax, a mild form of the disease, and is expected to recover. Another NBC employee is taking antibiotics after displaying possible symptoms of the disease; that worker has not tested positive for exposure.
O'Connor was exposed when she opened a letter containing a brown granular substance. It was postmarked Sept. 18, one week after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
In New Jersey, where the NBC and Daschle letters were mailed, federal officials interviewed postal workers and watched surveillance videotapes Sunday.
A mail carrier and a maintenance employee at the Trenton Main Post Office have reported symptoms that may be related to anthrax and were undergoing testing, postal officials said Monday. The disease can resemble flu in its earliest stages.
In Nevada, where a letter sent to a Microsoft office in Reno contained pornographic pictures contaminated with anthrax, officials said Monday that all six people who were checked for exposure — five Microsoft workers and a family member — tested negative for the bacteria.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he would ask Congress for more than $1.5 billion to take steps to counter bioterrorism threats.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.