WASHINGTON — No traces of anthrax spores were found in preliminary tests of the home, mail or garbage of the 94-year-old Connecticut woman who died this week of the disease, officials said Friday.
The case has left investigators struggling to find clues into the fifth inhalation anthrax death in the United States since a bioterrorist attack was launched by mail more than two months ago.
Adding to the mystery, investigators said early tests were negative for anthrax contamination at two postal facilities that handle mail for the small town of Oxford, Conn., where Ottilie W. Lundgren lived.
Officials had hoped that the tests would turn up a trail of anthrax spores revealing how the woman, who needed help to leave home and made limited outings, contracted the deadly disease.
Lack of Evidence Troubles Officials
More than 20 investigators from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as dozens of FBI agents, state health officials and other local law enforcement officers, have been searching for clues since Lundgren's death Wednesday.
"It's frustrating for all of us," Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said. While it was "good news" that there appeared to be no exposure of postal workers, he said, the lack of clues was troubling.
"The bad news is, from an investigative standpoint, we still are frustrated at not finding the source of the anthrax," he said.
Lundgren, whose funeral is today, is the second anthrax death to have no obvious connection to the mail. At least four anthrax-laced letters are known to have been sent through the U.S. postal system, and anthrax contamination has been discovered in postal facilities in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.
The Oct. 31 death of Kathy T. Nguyen, a 61-year-old New York woman, also has baffled officials. Investigators have not found a trail of anthrax contamination leading to her Queens' apartment or the Manhattan hospital where she worked as a stockroom employee.
In the Lundgren case, tracking her activities is easier, but evidence is lacking. Two rounds of testing of area postal facilities, one conducted prior to her illness, have shown no anthrax.
Before Lundgren's death, CDC officials had said that any mail that came in contact with an anthrax-laced letter could not pick up enough of the deadly spores to cause the inhaled form of the disease. But earlier this week, federal health officials said Lundgren's age may have made her more susceptible than most people, raising the possibility that a cross-contaminated letter was to blame.
Officials said Friday that, while further tests are still needed, the mail theory did not appear promising.
"We don't have anything right now to indicate the mail was used," U.S. Postal Inspector Dan Mihalko said. "It is possible that the amount was so small that we will not be able to find it."
Bioterrorism the Likely Culprit
Mihalko said officials may have to regroup and get back "to the old-fashioned, gumshoe type of investigation."
Federal health officials continued to discount the possibility that Lundgren's death had no connection to the bioterrorist attacks.
The strain that killed her was found to be indistinguishable from the bacteria that have sickened at least 18 people, including the other dead, the CDC said Thursday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Friday that it would be a "most extraordinary coincidence" for Lundgren's case to be unrelated, particularly since the last known anthrax case in a Connecticut animal dates back decades.
Fauci, appearing on CBS-TV's "Early Show," said that if Lundgren's case did not fit the known pattern of mail attacks, it would "open the door to virtually anything."
"Did she come into contact with someone who actually had the material?" he said. "Was there someone who had a letter that came from a different place, come into her house?"
Local Postal Workers Taking Antibiotics
Meanwhile, about 75% of the postal workers at the Seymour post office near Lundgren's home and at the nearby Wallingford distribution center are taking antibiotics as a precaution. Two Washington area postal employees died of inhalation anthrax and two others--as well as a State Department mail room worker--contracted the disease.
In the wake of the latest anthrax case, a top postal union official this week urged members not to work in facilities where anthrax contamination has been found, despite CDC assurances that trace levels of the bacterium pose no health risk.