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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE ANTHRAX THREAT

5th Person Dies of Anthrax; Case Baffles Investigators

November 22, 2001|JOHN J. GOLDMAN and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

OXFORD, Conn. — A 94-year-old Connecticut woman died Wednesday of inhalation anthrax, the fifth person to be killed by the rare disease since a bioterrorist attack was launched through the U.S. postal system two months ago.

Ottilie W. Lundgren, who rarely ventured beyond her church, beauty parlor and the occasional lunch with friends, died Wednesday morning just hours after her illness was confirmed as anthrax by federal health officials. Her death saddened and frightened residents of this quiet community about 70 miles northeast of New York City.

And it troubled investigators, who said there is no easy explanation for how Lundgren came in contact with enough anthrax spores to kill her.

As in last month's baffling death of Kathy T. Nguyen, a 61-year-old New York hospital stockroom worker, Lundgren had no known connection to contaminated mail or to the politicians and media organizations that have been targeted in the attacks. Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said that because of Lundgren's limited travels, "suspicions lead directly to the mail, some sort of cross-contamination."

The case ended federal health officials' hopes that after a three-week lull, the spate of anthrax infections had ended. Before the mail attacks began, anthrax had not killed anyone in the United States since 1976.

The latest illness may once again force federal health officials to reassess their beliefs about who is at risk. Doctors say Lundgren's age may have made her more susceptible to inhalation anthrax than most people, meaning that she might have been infected by a much smaller number of spores than the 8,000 to 10,000 considered to be a lethal dose.

"What we really need to find out is what the source in that woman was," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who said he thinks it may have come from "a secondly contaminated letter."

Until now, health officials have said mail contaminated from contact with an anthrax-laced letter would not have enough of the deadly spores to cause the more serious inhaled form of the disease.

The possibility that the anthrax spores that killed Lundgren came by mail is being investigated, federal law enforcement officials said, although "nothing obvious" was uncovered immediately. Dozens of FBI agents were working on the case.

She apparently had not received mail from either of her U.S. senators. The Capitol Hill offices of Democrats Christopher J. Dodd and Joseph I. Lieberman both tested positive for trace amounts of anthrax.

On Edgewood Road, where Lundgren had lived for decades, state police blocked off traffic and spectators as investigators continued to do environmental testing. Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said Wednesday that the results of those tests were not expected for at least 48 hours.

As a precaution, postal employees at two facilities near Lundgren's home were given antibiotics, even though state officials said the buildings had tested negative for anthrax as recently as Nov. 11. Koplan said a team of five investigators was working the case and more would be sent if needed.

Federal health officials said it is unlikely that the anthrax spores that killed Lundgren occurred naturally, a possibility they described as "very low." Test results from Lundgren's infection, expected within days, should enable investigators to say whether the strain that killed her was the same or similar to that found in the other four victims.

If it is, that might rule out the possibility that Lundgren encountered a natural form of the bacterium. And it could link her case to the other 17 confirmed cases and to the sender of anthrax-laced letters.

But it may be the uniqueness of the Lundgren case that provides investigators with the most valuable information.

"This is an unusual case that really is a puzzle," said Dr. Donald A. Henderson, the head of the federal Office of Public Health Preparedness. "The work done to solve a puzzle can often be very revealing. This case and the one in New York, for that reason, have special importance."

As investigators scoured Lundgren's ranch-style home for clues and continued to question her neighbors, relatives and friends, those close to her remembered a tall, dignified lady who stayed sharp until slipping into a coma this week.

Her pastor had visited every day since she entered Griffin Hospital in nearby Derby on Friday complaining of upper respiratory trouble. She was last able to speak to him early this week, still displaying her dry wit.

"She was not having an easy time of it when I talked with her on Monday, but she still said some people were mispronouncing her name," said Rev. Richard Carlson Miesel of Immanuel Lutheran Church. "She had a kind of sparkle in her eye, a little bit of smirk. She talked to me about her husband and what a good husband he was."

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