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RESPONSE TO TERROR | ANTHRAX THREAT

New Anthrax Case Feared in Northeast

November 21, 2001|JOSH MEYER and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — An elderly Connecticut woman is being treated for possible inhalation anthrax after several preliminary tests came back positive for the life-threatening disease, the state's governor said Tuesday.

The new case, which if confirmed would mark the first anthrax illness since the mysterious death of a New York hospital worker last month, came as investigators pursued the possibility that the bioterrorism attacks might be traced to someone with a political vendetta against two liberal Democratic senators.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, were each mailed envelopes that authorities say contained billions of anthrax spores. The unopened Leahy letter was discovered Friday in mail quarantined after a Daschle staffer opened a contaminated letter Oct. 15.

Four people have been killed by anthrax and 13 others sickened since early last month. Investigators say all but one of the deaths are connected to contaminated mail.

The Connecticut case was labeled a "suspicious illness" Tuesday by federal health officials, who said they hope to have final test results today. With no new cases reported in several weeks, officials had expressed hope that the attacks might be over.

Ottilie W. Lundgren, 94, who lives alone in a rural community, was admitted to Griffin Hospital late last week with upper respiratory problems. She was in critical condition Tuesday night in Derby, Conn., about 90 minutes northeast of New York City.

"On Saturday morning, based on the way her disease was progressing, her doctors suspected anthrax and began testing for it," said hospital spokeswoman Maria Duncan. State health officials then conducted their own tests, which also came back positive, Duncan said.

"It's difficult to explain how the person contracted anthrax," Connecticut Gov. John Rowland told reporters Tuesday, cautioning that further testing might prove negative. "There is no evidence [she] contracted the disease as a result of a criminal act."

Lundgren's next-door neighbor, Robert Stevenson, described her as a thin, frail woman who did and said little.

"She might wave as we walked by" on her few trips out of the house to get her mail or the newspaper, Stevenson said.

Stevenson said he couldn't understand how Lundgren could have contracted anthrax, saying she "never went out, except with relatives."

"I don't know if it's anthrax; it's hard to think that it could hit that close to home," Stevenson said. "We're hoping it hasn't."

Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, where samples were flown Tuesday night, noted that there have been "a number" of suspicious cases and preliminary positives that proved not to be anthrax. "The responsible thing to do is to wait for the final tests, which will take 24 hours," said CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben.

The FBI and Postal Inspection Service rushed agents to the woman's home Tuesday evening to quarantine the area and begin testing for anthrax and looking for clues.

Postal inspectors, the law enforcement agents of the Postal Service, went through the woman's mail while FBI agents began talking to relatives, neighbors and anyone else who might have information about how she could have been exposed to the deadly bacteria, authorities said. By late Tuesday evening, authorities said they found no clues as to how, or if, the woman had come into contact with anthrax spores.

"Obviously, as with the [New York case], we will want to test to see if there are any traces [of anthrax] where she lives," said Dan Mihalko, a spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service. "But it's too early to figure out what the heck's going on here."

If the case proves to be the 18th confirmed anthrax illness since the bioterrorist attacks began, it would open a new avenue for investigators. So far they have made little progress in tracking either the source of the anthrax or its sender.

However, those close to the investigation noted Tuesday that there were no obvious connections between the other cases and an elderly woman who lives alone in a region not known to have received any anthrax-laced letters.

Officials noted that, if confirmed, the Connecticut case would be the second one that does not fit the known pattern of the attacks.

The death of Kathy T. Nguyen, a 61-year-old hospital stockroom worker who lived alone in Queens, has baffled investigators who have been unable to find any ties between the quiet Vietnamese immigrant and a source of enough anthrax spores to kill her.

In the case of the Connecticut woman, Mihalko said: "From what we understand, she's 94 and she doesn't get out of the house very much." If the woman does have inhalation anthrax, "it would be as puzzling as the Nyugen case."

Investigators, meanwhile, are pursuing more promising leads in the anthrax scare, perhaps most significant a possible motive for the attacks based on the discovery of a second anthrax-filled letter sent to Capitol Hill.

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