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Last Updated

15 Nov 2002

Source: Newsday, November 7, 2001.

Medical investigator's search for anthrax a frustrating trail

By JOHN P. McALPIN, Associated Press Writer

TRENTON, N.J. -- After days of uncertainty, Teresa Heller (case 4) was the biggest clue. As the first person known to be infected with anthrax in New Jersey, she became the index case, the all-important starting point for any medical investigation.

Once they have a patient, the doctor detectives search outward in growing circles to find the source of the infection.

But Heller is a letter carrier who likely touched tainted mail in a postal system where letters zig and zag among mailboxes, post offices, transfer stations and regional distribution centers.

A Hamilton accountant also infected with skin anthrax offered hope for finding the source. But when her office mailbox tested positive for anthrax, that led right back to the Hamilton post office where the search began weeks before.

Now medical authorities say the anthrax outbreak is likely slowing down, even as their investigation is frustrated because all leads point back to the only known source of the infection -- the Hamilton postal facility.

Unlike the epidemiologists, FBI agents are not frustrated by the dead ends offered by the medical probe.

"We're moving forward, in a logical progressive fashion," FBI spokeswoman Sandra Carroll said Wednesday.

"I don't know if you ever return to square one in an investigation. It ebbs and flows," Carroll said. "That was just one avenue of elements we were pursuing based on the outbreak."

The last known letter containing anthrax was sent Oct. 9 through the Hamilton post office to Washington. Two other letters, both dated Sept. 18, were sent to New York.

Health officials announced Heller's infection on Oct. 18, making her the first victim outside the Hamilton office. Heller's route is in West Trenton.

FBI agents walked the route and questioned the people whose mail she delivered, but abandoned it as a possible source for the anthrax letters within days.

It would weeks before state health officials openly discussed the possibility Heller's mail was tainted at the Hamilton site.

Acting Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco wants all post offices in New Jersey tested for anthrax.

"At this point the governor does not have information that provides enough assurance there was not more cross-contamination," spokesman Tom Wilson said Monday.

But health officials are not sure what those tests will yield since no one knows exactly how often -- if at all -- naturally occurring anthrax spores can be found in such widespread tests.

Most scientific surveys have only been done for anthrax in fields, not in buildings, experts said.

"As we test more and more postal facilities, or other facilities, we will likely find spores and the meaningfulness of those spores. Right now we can't help you with that," said Acting Health Commissioner Dr. George T. DiFerdinando.