Masks for Postal Workers? 'What Took So Long?'

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

(Editor's note: Adds comments of union leader Vincent Sombrotto)

( - While the Bush administration won widespread praise for its response to the hijacked-airplane terror attacks, criticism is mounting for its response to the anthrax scare.

A sub-heading on the front page of Tuesday's New York Times says, "A Quick Response for Politicians; A Slower One for Mail Workers." According to various press reports, some postal workers believe their health needs came second to those of Capitol Hill VIPs.

But according to Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not believe that anthrax contained in a sealed envelope could infect postal workers - a wrong assumption, as it turns out.

"I would certainly hope that the people who work on Capitol Hill would not get any more special treatment over men and women who work in the postal service," said Vincent Sombrotto, who heads the National Association of Letter Carriers.

In an interview on NBC's Today show Tuesday, Sombrotto said the best thinking last week was that anthrax spores could not escape from sealed letters. "They (health experts) were not sure, there were protocols that had to be followed and they were following those protocols," he said.

Last week, according to Sombrotto, America's front-line health officials believed that the risk of postal workers contracting anthrax was not high enough to justify treating them with Cipro, which carries side effects of its own.

"What happened at Brentwood?" asked the Washington Post on Tuesday, in an editorial stressing the need for quicker and more thorough government action in the face of the anthrax threat.

"These questions are not accusatory," the newspaper says, noting that, "We are all in new terrain, and authorities are feeling their way."

But, says the newspaper, "What we have seen over the weekend and yesterday underscores both the gravity of the situation and the need for authorities to be aggressive and expansive on matters of public health, public safety and public information - especially if a few days can spell the difference between life and death."

As of Tuesday morning, two Washington-area postal workers had died, most likely from the inhaled form of anthrax; two others remained in the hospital for treatment of inhalation anthrax; and nine other postal workers had what officials call "suspicious symptoms."

Washington's Brentwood postal distribution center was being tested for anthrax contamination; and the testing will expand on Tuesday to 36 other Washington post offices that receive mail from the Brentwood center.

Postal workers throughout the capital city were urged to start taking preventive antibiotics. The number of people taking precautionary antibiotics is close to 10,000 in Washington alone.

Also on Tuesday, postal officials planned to meet with experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to consider whether mail sorters and deliverers across the country should start wearing gloves and masks in the course of doing their jobs.

Postal workers themselves are grumbling about the response to their own health needs. Wire services quoted Abraham Odom of Oxon Hill, Md., who sorts mail at the Brentwood center: "They closed the House building down while we were in there inhaling it," Odom said. "That's not right. That's not fair."