By Diane Scarponi
DERBY, Conn. – A 94-year-old woman who lived alone and seldom left her rural home died of the inhaled form of anthrax today in a baffling new twist in the bioterrorism investigation.
Ottilie Lundgren died five days after she was hospitalized with respiratory problems. She is the fifth person to die of anthrax since early October, and the first case of the disease outside of New York, New Jersey, Florida or Washington.
Her death and that of a New York hospital worker are the only ones that have not been linked to tainted mail.
Authorities said there was no immediate evidence of a crime in Lundgren’s death, but the FBI and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began tracing her steps over the past month and are looking at the mail as a potential source.
“We’re not focused on any one thing, although the mail is certainly an obvious issue,” FBI spokeswoman Lisa Bull said. “But we’re really trying to keep an open mind about any possibility.”
No anthrax-tainted letters have been reported in the southwestern Connecticut area, and tests at a regional mail-sorting center just last week came up clean.
The nation’s last anthrax death was Oct. 31, when a hospital worker died in New York City, 70 miles away from Lundgren’s modest ranch home in rural Oxford. Lundgren had no known links to any of the previous victims.
With this second unexplained anthrax case, CDC Director Dr. Jeffrey Koplan acknowledged he could not discount the possibility that naturally occurring anthrax is more common than doctors thought and is only now being discovered.
But he called that unlikely, particularly in an Eastern state where animal anthrax has not been detected.
“Could one find anthrax spores in a garden in that area? I’m sure one could. Is it likely to be a source of inhalation anthrax? Very unlikely,” he said. Thus, “we have to pursue this vigorously as potentially related to these other criminal acts.”
Gov. John Rowland called Lundgren’s death the result of “domestic terrorism.”
“There’s no question this is a crime. No question this is a homicide,” he said. “Anthrax is not an accident.”
Evidence from Lundgren’s home, including mail, will be tested for anthrax. Results are not expected until later this week.
State Trooper Roger Beaupre said investigators are looking into whether Lundgren came in contact with someone who had mailed anthrax to news organizations and political leaders.
So far, investigators have found no clues to possible anthrax exposure – such as using imported wool – in Lundgren’s hobbies or daily routine.
Her niece, Shirley Davis, said her aunt seldom left home except for church and a weekly visit to the beauty parlor.
The CDC is testing the anthrax in Lundgren’s blood to see if it is from the same strain that was mailed to political leaders and news organizations.
Before this fall, the last U.S. case of inhalation anthrax was reported in 1976.
The anthrax scare began Oct. 5 with the death of a photo editor who worked at a supermarket tabloid in Florida. Two Washington postal workers and the New York hospital employee died over the next few weeks, while others became infected with inhaled anthrax or the milder skin form of the disease.
None of the cases has been solved. Investigators linked all of the cases to tainted mail – except for the death of the hospital worker, Kathy Nguyen.
Traces of anthrax have been found in the Washington offices or mail rooms of Connecticut’s senators, Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman. Spokesmen for both lawmakers said they have no record of corresponding with Lundgren.
Investigators are awaiting the results of anthrax tests at a mail sorting center in Wallingford and the post office in Seymour. The governor urged about 1,000 workers from those offices to take antibiotics as a precaution.
In Washington, the Education Department said traces of anthrax had been found in the agency’s mailroom. Officials said the amount suggested the room was contaminated by mail from the Brentwood postal facility, which handled anthrax-tainted letters sent to Capitol Hill last month.
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