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Last Updated

20 Nov 2002

Source: Wall Street Journal, November 21, 2001

Officials Confirm Inhalation Anthrax In 94-Year-Old Connecticut Woman


OXFORD, Conn. -- Federal health officials confirmed Wednesday that an elderly woman hospitalized for an apparent respiratory ailment has inhalation anthrax.

Gov. John G. Rowland said the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified state officials early Wednesday morning that sophisticated testing confirmed 94-year-old Ottilie Lundgren was infected with the most dangerous form of the deadly disease.

Mr. Rowland said the early investigation was focusing on the mail, "because that has been the cause of other anthrax scares in the past."

"At her age she has not traveled a great deal, so that's why the suspicions lead directly to mail and cross-contamination of some sort," Mr. Rowland said.

At Griffin Hospital in Derby, Ms. Lundgren's doctors said she remained in critical condition. Hospital President Patrick Charmel said her doctors had been aggressive in identifying the nature of her illness, which led to an early diagnosis of anthrax.

But Dr. Lydia Barakat noted that while Ms. Lundgren began receiving treatment within hours of her arrival Friday, she had been ill for two days before she was taken to the hospital.

"Any elderly patient will have a hard time fighting any kind of infection, even the most common type of bacterial infection," Dr. Barakat said. "And she's old, she has other [serious] illnesses, so she's definitely critical."

Mr. Rowland said investigators don't know how the woman might have come in contact with anthrax spores.

"We have the CDC team, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and our own state police at the location of the home ... trying to make a determination or find any traces of anthrax," he said. "We're also working with the two postal facilities in Wallingford and Seymour."

The large Wallingford processing center handles mail for southern Connecticut and was checked earlier this month for anthrax contamination. No problems were found.

Mr. Rowland said investigators are doing interviews with about 1,500 postal employees and giving them antibiotics.

Recent cases of anthrax centered on letters to high-profile people in major cities: television anchors and other members of the media and members of Congress.

Now Oxford.

"There's no rhyme or reason to what's happened over the last eight weeks, either," Mr. Rowland said Tuesday night.

Mr. Rowland and hospital officials said there was no indication that Ms. Lundgren is related to any government official or member of the media, or had any public activity that would cause her to be a target of terrorism.

Ms. Lundgren's niece, Shirley Davis, told the Hartford Courant that she checked on her aunt several times a day. "Especially since she gave up her license a year ago, she has stayed close to home," Ms. Davis said. "She went to the hairdresser's and to [church] when she was up to it. I nearly fainted when the doctors told me they suspected anthrax."

Ms. Lundgren was admitted to Griffin Hospital on Friday. Doctors originally suspected pneumonia.

On Saturday the hospital tested four vials of blood for the presence of bacteria. When those came back positive, the hospital conducted additional tests that showed the bacteria matched the properties of anthrax, said Dr. Stephanie Wain, who runs the hospital's lab.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Joxel Garcia said the state immediately began conducting its own investigation, using three more sophisticated tests. Each came back positive for anthrax, he said.

The physicians at Griffin -- Dr. Barakat and Dr. Howard Quentzel, chief of the hospital's division of infectious diseases -- had attended a statewide meeting about the disease last week.

They said they realized anthrax could happen anywhere, even in rural Connecticut, after a woman in New York City with no known connection to the media, the postal service or the government died from the disease.

"Personally, we didn't want to be overreacting to the results, but as physicians, we also are supposed to give the best possible care to patients," Dr. Barakat said.

Police cars blocked the neighborhood surrounding Ms. Lundgren's modest ranch-style home Tuesday night. Hazardous-materials teams were called to the scene.

"It doesn't seem like something of this magnitude should happen in a town like this," said John Dunleavey, 23 years old, who grew up in the neighborhood. "Normally you don't see this kind of action in town. Usually there's just one or two cops in town at night."

Oxford, a town with less than 10,000 residents, has one bank and no hotel, according to state data from the Connecticut Department of Economic and Community Development. Most of the town -- more than 80% -- is open land north of the Housatonic River in the Naugatuck Valley.

Neighbor Carol Tuttle moved onto Edgewood Road in June. "I can only light a candle for her at church Sunday," she told the New Haven Register.

Ms. Davis said she handled all of her aunt's mail, which she described as routine. "She received ads, solicitations, junk mail, the kinds of things everyone gets," she told the Courant. "I see the mail every day and didn't notice anything unusual."

In a recent interview with the Cable News Network, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said authorities have received a number of valuable tips since the FBI released a psychological profile earlier this month of the anthrax mailer. "We certainly have better leads than we had a few days ago," Mr. Ashcroft said, reiterating that officials are leaning toward believing the letters are the work of someone in the U.S.

Public-health officials nationwide have been watchful for anthrax cases, and in some instances patients have turned out not to have the disease. In Fort Collins, Colo., two post offices were closed and hundreds of people were offered antibiotics earlier this month while a postal worker with pneumonia was tested for inhalation anthrax. The Centers for Disease Control ultimately determined he didn't have the disease. Nationwide, four people have died and 13 have been sickened by anthrax since early October.