- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2001

Some D.C. post office customers are alarmed by recent reports of anthrax exposure among postal workers, while others are worried that the regionwide slowdown of mail delivery will cause penalties for late utility bills.
D.C. health and U.S. Postal Service authorities and utility company executives yesterday addressed those concerns.
Anyone who has gone into the front business area of the Brentwood postal facility or any other post office in the District since Oct. 12 does not need treatment for exposure to anthrax, said Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, the District's senior health official.
"I'm very concerned about people taking medications they don't need," Dr. Walks said. "We don't want people at home ordering Cipro on the Internet because they hear that there is anthrax down the street."
Dr. Walks was concerned that a warning yesterday from postal officials may have caused excessive fear in the general public. U.S. Postmaster General John Potter warned Americans that there are no guarantees the mail delivered to their homes is safe, while stressing that the risks are slim.
"We would love to be able to say 'don't worry, your mail is safe. But we're not going to lie to the American people. At this point the mail has a certain risk," Deborah K. Willhite, a spokeswoman for the USPS said.
The USPS advised anyone receiving letters at their home to keep an eye out for specific characteristics that may indicate that a piece of mail is suspicious.
Things to watch out for include lumpy or lopsided-looking packages, mail with excessive postage, handwritten addresses and no return addresses on the envelope.
If people find anything suspect in mail delivered to their homes, they should avoid handling it, shaking, bumping or sniffing it, then isolate it, wash their hands, and notify local authorities, the USPS said.
A post card will be sent out next week to every household in America with tips on how to handle letters and packages that may contain a biological agent, according to the USPS Web site, www.usps.com.
Rumors that people should microwave or iron their mail before opening it are completely wrong. "Microwaving will actually feed the little bugs and ironing will not help either," Ms. Willhite said.
Public and private sector doctors yesterday told The Washington Times that panic in the general public is not necessary at this point.
"On the issue of anthrax in particular, I think, to the average person, the risk approaches zero," said Dr. Timothy Flaherty, chairman of the board of trustees for the American Medical Association. "The only exposure is the people in direct contact with opening any envelopes with suspicious powder," he said, adding anthrax is not contagious.
Dr. Kenneth J. Dillon, of Spectrum Bioscience Inc., a research firm that develops pharmaceuticals and medical devices for treating diseases in developing countries, said "the chances of an individual consumer to the post office getting infected are very, very tiny."
People should remember that anthrax is not a weapon of mass destruction, rather a weapon of mass hysteria, he said.
Some D.C. residents said yesterday that as customers of the post office, recent cases of anthrax exposure including the deaths of two D.C. postal workers from the disease have them feeling as though they're personally under attack. While trying to go about their lives, they said they feel wary and afraid.
"I feel like I'm under attack because my mail comes from this post office and the Brentwood post office," said Miko Reed, 25, who was mailing letters at the local post office in the 1900 block of 14th Street NW yesterday.
Other customers were worried about the regionwide slowdown of mail delivery since the Brentwood facility closed on Sunday. "I haven't been here for three or four weeks because I was scared, but still when I checked my box today, it was empty," said Michael Tesfai, a Northwest resident who was visiting the 14th street facility.
Bills mailed Friday by Potomac Electric Power Co. have been locked up inside Brentwood since the facility closed. "That batch of bills is just sitting there, and we don't how long it's going to be before [customers] receive them," said company spokesman Robert Dobkin, adding that Pepco mail has been rerouted to another postal facility. "But most people should get their bills on time."
The company, which mails out about 27,000 bills a day, is not waiving late fees, but has a grace period, Mr. Dobkin said. "We're being flexible and working with our customers if there's problems as result of mail deliveries."
Customers can contact Pepco and make arrangements with a bank to have funds electronically deducted, he said. They also can visit one of Pepco's offices in the District, Rockville and Forestville.
Washington Gas customers in the District and Maryland will not be charged late fees, said spokesman Tim Sargeant. The utility also is encouraging customers to pay their bills by going to Washington Gas headquarters at 1100 H St. or by calling in their payments.
SunTrust Bank and First Virginia Bank branches also take payments for the utility, which does not have an online payment system.
Most large banks are waiving late fees in regions affected by the closed post offices. But they also are encouraging customers to mail their bills a few days in advance.
If you feel like there's been a problem with a late payment or fee, "give your bank a call and they'll try to work something out with you," said John Hall, spokesman for the American Bankers Association.
Kristina Stefanova contributed to this article.

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