Connecticut woman dies of inhalation anthrax
DERBY, Connecticut (CNN) -- An elderly Connecticut woman diagnosed with inhalation anthrax died Wednesday, becoming the fifth such fatality since several anthrax-laced letters began turning up in the mail last month.
Ottilie Lundgren's case puzzles investigators because she had no known connection to government offices, postal facilities or news outlets, which have been tied to all but one of the other 17 anthrax cases.
The FBI has launched a criminal investigation and is trying to track Lundgren's movements over the past month to determine how she may have come in contact with the deadly bacteria.
"There is mystery to this case," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson told reporters minutes after a hospital executive announced Lundgren's death. "We do not know how she was exposed to anthrax."
In an interview before Lundgren's death, Connecticut Gov. John Rowland said he didn't believe the woman was a "target of terrorism." Authorities are operating on the premise that she contracted anthrax via cross contamination through the mail. No suspicious letter, however, has been found at her home.
One possibility investigators are considering is that Lundgren may have received contaminated mail from Washington, where several government offices, including a large postal distribution center, have been contaminated with anthrax.
"We're obviously focusing on the mail because that has been the cause of other anthrax scares in the past," Rowland said.
Lundgren was the first anthrax case in Connecticut and the first in the United States in about three weeks. She lived alone in Oxford, a small town of 2,000 in the southwestern part of the state, and had a limited social life, officials said.
The diagnosis, confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, brings to 18 the total number of anthrax cases: 11 with the more serious form of inhalation anthrax and seven cutaneous, or skin anthrax. Five people who contracted inhalation anthrax have died, including Kathy Nguyen, a hospital worker who, like Lundgren, had no known connection to possible government or media targets.
Lundgren, suffering from an upper-respiratory tract infection, was taken Friday by a family member to the Griffin Hospital emergency room in Derby, said Patrick Charmel, the hospital's president.
Based on her symptoms, including a rapid deterioration in her condition, doctors suspected anthrax within hours and began conducting tests and treating her for the illness, he said.
Doctors said the woman's advanced age complicated efforts to save her.
Griffin Hospital was the site of another anthrax scare early Wednesday afternoon. Local police and fire officials cordoned off the emergency room entrance, and workers in hazardous material suits entered the area after a woman came in saying she had an envelope with a suspicious substance.
Charmel said the woman was not sick but came to the hospital after talking to her physician. The envelope will be analyzed.
"[The envelope] was subsequently bagged and brought out of the hospital," Charmel said.
Investigators from the FBI and the Connecticut State Police have sealed off Lundgren's house in Oxford, and they are questioning friends and family members to trace her recent movements, Rowland said.
"She's homebound," Rowland said. "She's been to, I understand, literally the post office and maybe even the beauty salon. That's been about it for the last few weeks. So this is a very remote case, similar to the case in New York, the worker in New York that had inhalation anthrax and unfortunately passed away."
Lisa Bull, an FBI spokeswoman in Connecticut, said investigators are "trying to button down a timeline going back approximately 30 days" for Lundgren.
The governor said that two postal facilities sent mail to the woman's address in Oxford.
"We checked both the Seymour and Wallingford post offices as late as November 11 to determine if there were any anthrax traces," he said. "Both of them came up clean. So we're going to go back to those two post offices, and we will also make available antibiotics to any of the postal workers in those two facilities."
The governor encouraged the 1,500 postal employees at the two facilities to begin taking medicine Wednesday "for peace of mind and for precautionary purposes." He said employees at the beauty salon where the woman frequented also would be treated.
Rowland emphasized that the case appeared to be an aberration.
"This is an isolated case," he said. "We have no other reason to believe that anybody else has been impacted."
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