By Donna Tommelleo
OXFORD, Conn. – Preliminary tests have found no evidence of anthrax so far on the personal mail, mailbox or post office of an elderly Connecticut woman who mysteriously died of the bacteria this week, law enforcement officials said today.
The officials in Washington, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said preliminary tests found no spores so far on the woman’s rural mailbox outside her Oxford home, mail found inside the home or the post office she used.
The officials added there was no anthrax evidence on tests taken at the U.S. Postal processing center that served her area.
“The preliminary tests show nothing positive,” one official told The Associated Press.
The officials cautioned that the tests were preliminary and more samples from Ottilie Lundgren’s home and other locations she frequented were still pending.
Connecticut Gov. John Rowland was expected to discuss the testing at a news conference later today, but officials cautioned that not all the environmental testing from the woman’s house was complete.
As federal investigators searched for clues to how the 94-year-old woman came down with inhalation anthrax, Chilean and U.S. officials confirmed the first reported case of a deadly strain of the bacteria in mail outside the United States.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta confirmed on Thursday that a letter sent from Switzerland to Chile was tainted with anthrax. The letter had been sent to Dr. Antonio Banfi, a pediatrician at a children’s hospital in Santiago.
Banfi, who opened the envelope, and 12 others nearby have not tested positive for exposure to anthrax spores but were being treated for the disease as a precaution, according to the Chilean Health Ministry.
Banfi became suspicious because the letter was postmarked in Zurich but marked with a Florida return address, Chilean officials said. No other details were made available.
In Connecticut, law enforcement and health officials are speaking to Lundgren’s friends to determine what she did, where she went and who she saw before Nov. 16, when she was admitted to a hospital with flu-like symptoms.
Investigators today completed an initial sweep of Lundgren’s home, said Nicole Coffin, a spokeswoman for the CDC.
“That was very thorough, and the samples were taken to the state health department’s lab,” she said.
Besides sifting through Lundgren’s trash and examining her mail, investigators took environmental samples from the few places Lundgren had visited over the past few weeks in this rural town of 9,800.
Friends and relatives said she seldom left her home, except to visit the library, a beauty parlor, doctors’ offices and her church.
Investigators have said that cross-contamination of the mail is a leading theory about how Lundgren contracted the disease. “But we’re really trying to keep an open mind about any possibility,” said FBI spokeswoman Lisa Bull.
Coffin said testing so far has shown that the strain of anthrax that killed Lundgren was similar to anthrax found in other recent cases.
Tests were also due back today on two postal service centers that serve Oxford: the post office in neighboring Seymour and a regional mail distribution center in Wallingford.
About 50 postal workers at Seymour and more than 1,100 at Wallingford were offered a 10-day regimen of the antibiotic Cipro. About three-fourths of the workers have accepted the drug, postal officials said.
Erik Wexler, executive vice president of MidState Medical Center in Meriden, said the antibiotic was being distributed as a precaution.
In Washington, the president of a major postal employees union said he will advise members to refuse to work in buildings where any trace of anthrax remains.
Two postal workers have died and others have been sickened by anthrax since tainted letters addressed to the news media and members of Congress began appearing. Postal facilities in New Jersey and Washington remain closed for decontamination.
“It’s a continuing concern that so much uncertainty continues to exist regarding the source of these infections,” said Bill Burrus, president of the 360,000-member American Postal Workers Union.
Nationwide, the U.S. Postal Service has tested 278 facilities for anthrax and found some contamination at 21 of them. Nineteen have been decontaminated and reopened.
Because medical experts differ on how much anthrax is needed to cause an infection, Burrus said, “I’m telling my members we will not work in contaminated facilities.”
Postal Service Vice President Azeezaly Jaffer said he believed talks were continuing with the unions on how to respond in the event of future contamination.
There have been several reports worldwide of anthrax being found in mail, but most have turned out to be false. They included cases in Kenya, in the Bahamas and at Pakistan’s largest newspaper, in which authorities at first said they had found dangerous forms of anthrax in mail but later said further testing found no anthrax.
In Argentina, anthrax spores were discovered in mail, but tests determined that they were a harmless strain of the bacteria.
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