BOCA RATON, Fla. – A mailroom worker infected with inhalation anthrax while working at a tabloid publishing company was released from the hospital, his family said Wednesday.
Ernesto Blanco, 73, was released from Cedars Medical Center in Miami late Tuesday and is recovering at his North Miami home after a 23-day hospital stay, his stepdaughter Maria Orth said. She said he is doing well and responding to antibiotics.
"He looks good, he's mobile, he's talking," she said. "He seems to have some energy."
Orth said her stepfather hadn't discussed whether he would return to his job as mailroom courier at American Media Inc., where anthrax was discovered earlier this month. Doctors have told Blanco's family to monitor his temperature for signs of fever and he has a checkup scheduled for Thursday, she said.
"He's still just dealing with his recovery at this point," she said. "He'd like to [return to work] but they're really not looking at that right now."
Blanco was hospitalized Oct. 1 and doctors initially believed his symptoms were from pneumonia. A nasal swab test found he had been exposed to anthrax, but health officials didn't confirm he had contracted the rare and often deadly form of the disease until Oct. 15.
Meanwhile, a cleanup crew determining where anthrax is located in the American Media building will collect environmental samples later Wednesday, a day after learning spores weren't found in first-floor air ducts.
Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the results indicate contamination in the American Media building may be limited because the spores didn't spread through the ventilation system from the mailroom to other rooms on the first floor.
It is the first large-scale bio-cleanup for the EPA, which typically responds to oil and chemical spills. The federal government has allocated $500,000 from the Superfund program for the cleanup, although total costs have not been determined.
"This is very different obviously," EPA spokesman Peyton Fleming said Wednesday. "Our plan and our goal is the decontaminate the building so it's clean enough that it can be reused."
American Media had said it wouldn't return to its headquarters, but spokesman Gerald McKelvey said Wednesday that it's now too soon to make a final decision because cleanup is not complete. Officials continue to look for new office space just in case, he said.
"Employee concern is still going to be the major determination of whether AMI uses the building," he said.
Testing earlier this month by health officials found anthrax in the mailroom and on the third-floor desk of photo editor Bob Stevens, who died of the inhaled form of the disease. Besides Blanco, spores also were found in the nose of another co-worker who has not contracted the disease.
Meanwhile, a postal union reacting to the anthrax deaths of two postal worker deaths in Washington is demanding that all 160 employees at two Boca Raton post offices be tested for the disease beyond the 31 whose nasal swabs came back negative last week.
Traces of anthrax were found in three Palm Beach County postal facilities — two here and one in nearby Greenacres — that handled AMI mail.
Union officials said they may sue the U.S. Postal Service and possibly health officials to allow their employees to be tested.
Joseph Breckenridge, a U.S. Postal Service spokesman, said the decision to test additional postal employees would be made by health officials — not the postal service.
Palm Beach County Health Department Director Jean Malecki said an expansion of testing among postal employees was unnecessary because only a small number of spores were discovered and there has been no evidence of exposure.
The union asking for the screening represents workers in Boca Raton. Union officials representing workers in the rest of the county have not requested testing for employees.
Trying to uncover the path of the anthrax, health officials Tuesday took environmental samples from the county's main mail processing facility in West Palm Beach.
If the anthrax arrived at AMI's headquarters in a letter — as the FBI believes — it would initially have been sorted at the facility, Breckenridge said.
Similar tests were conducted at a post office in Greenacres, where mail sent to AMI's old Lantana address would have been processed. The results were pending.
In the Miami area, officials were awaiting test results on two suspicious packages that briefly closed two post offices, postal service spokesman Enola Rice said.