The sudden deaths of two Washington, D.C., postal workers -- neither of whom was previously known to have come in contact with anthrax -- heightened concerns over whether the government is screening enough people for exposure to the bacterium.
It also underscored the government's limited ability to respond to a widening circle of infection.
Resources in the nation's capital are so strained from trying to test thousands of postal workers that health department screening sites must stay open until at least 10 p.m. to complete the work.
And as the number of anthrax infections and exposures mounts, health officials warn that the nation's laboratories and hospitals are unprepared for widespread screening and detection of anthrax and other rare diseases that might be used by bioterrorists.
Health officials Monday stood by their strategy of screening people who have been in an area where spores have been detected.
But as postal workers lined up by the dozens for testing, some wondered whether their colleagues had to die. Said postal worker Joann Whitfield: "I think they waited too long to get us tested. Bottom line -- now two people are dead."
Should much wider screening prove necessary, the nation will be in a bind. Just 100 laboratories nationwide are able to process the test that confirms exposure to anthrax, the vast majority of them strapped county public health laboratories.
Testing for smallpox is even more difficult than testing for anthrax, in part because it is caused by a virus and is difficult to grow in a lab, and in part because doctors and lab technicians are unfamiliar with it.
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