Conn. Anthrax Case Baffles Investigators

Nov. 22, 2001 -- Authorities are still baffled about how a 94-year-old Connecticut woman became infected with the inhalation anthrax that killed her.


• Backtracking a Baffling Case

• Daschle Letter: Trillions of Anthrax Spores?

• Spores in Other D.C. Mailrooms

When Ottillie Lundgren first tested positive for the deadly bacteria, doctors thought perhaps she could have become infected from a natural source, but discussions with the woman indicated that could not have been the case.

"Initially there was hope because of the location in Oxford, which is a rarural farm community, that she may have had some environmental exposure," Dr. Kenneth Dobuler, chief of medicine at Griffin Hospital, said today on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "Further questioning from her family, her friends and the patient herself did not show any evidence that she had come into contact with cows, sheep, goats or any other potential environmental source."

Investigators are now looking at possible cross-contamination of mail that Lundgren received.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Wednesday that Lundgren had tested positive for inhalation anthrax, five days after she was admitted to Griffin Hospital in Derby, Conn., complaining of respiratory problems.

Doctors at first thought she had pneumonia. But five preliminary tests conducted at the hospital came out positive for inhalation anthrax, leading authorities to contact the CDC for additional testing.

"With the notoriety of this and the rapidity with which she was treated, we had some hope she might be able to rally, but at age 94 things certainly didn't go as we and her family would have wished," Dobuler said.

Lundgren died at 10:32 a.m, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said officials were doing their best to try to determine how she contracted the disease.

"We send our condolences to the victim's entire family. We are currently doing our best through a medical and criminal investigation to find out the source of the woman's disease," Thompson said.

A retired woman who lived alone on a farm in Oxford, Conn., about 20 miles from New Haven, Lundgren had a sedentary lifestyle, rarely going out except for trips to church and the local beauty parlor. Officials are at a loss as to an explanation of how and where she came in contact with the deadly bacteria.

"We're using the CDC, the FBI and state police to work backward," said Connecticut Gov. John G. Rowland. As a precaution, postal workers who may have handled Lundgren's mail and a niece who looked after the elderly woman were being treated with antibiotics.

As Lundgren's death was announced, state officials sealed off the hospital's emergency room after a woman brought in an envelope with a powdery substance that she considered suspicious.

The woman was concerned about her own health and brought in the envelope while seeking medical treatment from the hospital. The package was immediately sealed up and isolated, police and fire units were called. Preliminary tests by the Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection on the letter have come back negative for anthrax.

Backtracking a Baffling Case

Lundgren's case, the first in three weeks, was the 18th reported one since early October.

Thompson said he did not know whether Lundgren could have been the latest victim in the wave of anthrax attacks that infected 17 previous people or the first victim in another series of infections. First, he said, investigators have to find out how she was exposed to the deadly bacteria.

"Until we have a better idea of exposure, we cannot determine whether her disease fits into a certain pattern," Thompson said. "We are exploring every possible route … things that entered the home are certainly a prime suspect. We're also taking environmental samples from the home."

Thompson also said investigators are looking at how Lundgren's mail was handled, suspecting that perhaps it may have been cross-contaminated by an anthrax-laced letter. Investigators have also contacted Nu-Look, the beauty salon she regularly visited. Since she lived in a rural area, Thompson said officials have not ruled out that she was exposed to natural anthrax, but called it a "remote possibility." Connecticut has not had an extensive history of anthrax cases.

Two post offices in the area, which is about 80 miles from New York, were checked for anthrax on Nov. 11, said Rowland, leaving officials to suspect that "something could have happened after Nov. 11."

Rowland also urged all 1,500 postal workers at the two facilities to take antibiotics as a precaution.

The area around Lundgren's home has been blocked off and was being treated as a crime scene. A state police spokesman told The Associated Press that state police specialists from Emergency Services and FBI officials would begin searching and seizing evidence from the house.

However, Rowland told ABCNEWS he had not called for the use of gloves or for any different treatment of mail since the case is still considered an isolated one.

Lundgren's case is reminiscent of and seemingly as baffling as the death of Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old New York hospital worker who succumbed to the disease on Oct. 31.

The other inhalation anthrax cases have been restricted to people associated with members of the government and the media. Two Washington postal workers died, most likely after coming in contact with a potent anthrax-laced letter addressed to Sen. Tom Daschle last month. The first victim of inhalation anthrax in the United States was a newspaper photo editor in Florida.

Daschle Letter: Trillions of Anthrax Spores Per Gram

Sources told ABCNEWS today that the anthrax discovered in the letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle contained billions, perhaps even a trillion, spores per gram, far more than what the United States, Russia or Iraq ever achieved in their biological weapons programs

FBI sources Tuesday said an unopened letter mailed to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., seemed virtually identical to the one sent to Daschle, with an apparently equally deadly level of toxicity in the spores, suggesting that they may have come from the same source. Investigators have told ABCNEWS that a sample taken from the bag that held the letter had 23,000 spores — more than two deadly doses based on CDC estimates. The letter is being analyzed in a U.S. Army lab in Fort Detrick, Md.

Both the Daschle and Leahy letters were postmarked Oct. 9 and had the same return address from a fictitious school in New Jersey. Officials say the handwriting on the two letters was similar to writing on the ones sent to NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw and the New York Post.

Government officials have said the anthrax sent to Daschle's office was potent, milled to the right texture to infect human lungs, and contained an anti-clumping agent that made the spores float through the air more easily.

An FBI official told ABCNEWS the Leahy letter could provide the best clue so far to the source of similar anthrax letters sent through the mail. Investigators do not know who sent the contaminated letters and hope to benefit from the fact that the Leahy envelope has not been opened and they may have a larger amount of anthrax to analyze.

Meanwhile the offices of Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut will remain closed at least through the weekend after trace amounts of anthrax were found in Capitol Hill mailrooms that handled their mail. A spokesman for Leahy said his Capitol Hill office, which is in the same building as the offices of Kennedy and Dodd, has tested negative for anthrax.

'Small Number' of Spores in Other D.C. Mail Rooms

Education Department officials today confirmed the discovery of small amounts of anthrax in the agency's mailroom in Washington.

In a statement released to the press, the agency said the findings were "low-level and secondary indicators and are not considered dangerous to the mailroom staff."

Investigators believe the contamination came from a central postal facility that serves the area.

Meanwhile, a spokesman at NASA Public Affairs today confirmed that one of about 30 nasal swabs conducted at the building housing the space agency's headquarters in Washington came up positive for "a very small number" of anthrax spores.

Six employees have been moved and are taking antibiotics, said a NASA spokesman, and the area has been closed off.

See a timeline of the anthrax attacks and the investigation.