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Anthrax mystery deepens

| Saturday, Nov. 24, 2001

OXFORD, Conn. (AP) - Deepening the mystery surrounding the nation's latest anthrax death, preliminary tests Friday found no trace of the germ in the 94-year-old victim's home, on her mail or at her post office.

''Testing was focused on the so-called mail trail,'' Gov. John Rowland said. ''I can't speak for the federal authorities, but it's frustrating for all of us.''

Authorities were awaiting more definitive results, and testing of Ottilie Lundgren's home was not complete.

Investigators with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have meanwhile turned to the few places frequented by Lundgren, a widow who seldom left home except to go to the library, the beauty parlor, the doctor, church and a diner, where she sometimes stopped after her Saturday morning hair appointments.

Three government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said investigators were seeking a soil sample from the diner, Fritz's Snack Bar, after residents mentioned vague recollections of an anthrax outbreak among livestock at a nearby farm more than 50 years ago.

Officials said the sample was precautionary and they had not yet found records of such an outbreak or the farm. Anthrax spores can live for decades in soil.

Diner co-owner Glenn Fritz said the building has been a restaurant since 1954; before that, it was a liquor store. He said he was unfamiliar with any long-ago outbreak of anthrax, but said, ''This whole area used to be farms.''

Rowland, who has called the death a case of domestic terrorism, said Connecticut's hospitals have been asked to review the deaths of patients who had flu-like symptoms since Sept. 11 to see whether any anthrax deaths might have gone unnoticed.

''We're going to look at those who were deceased and what their diagnosis was,'' Yale-New Haven Hospital spokeswoman Louise Dambry said. ''They asked us to look at people particularly with pneumonia symptoms.''

Lundgren died of the inhaled form of anthrax Wednesday, becoming the fifth fatality since the nation's anthrax scare began in early October. The CDC said the strain that killed her was similar to strains found in other recent cases, but authorities have so far been baffled by its source.

CDC spokeswoman Lisa Swenarski said the agency should know sometime this weekend if anthrax found in a letter sent from Switzerland to Chile is from the same strain as the anthrax found in letters in Washington and New York. The letter was received last week by a pediatrician at a children's hospital in Santiago, the Chilean Health Ministry said.

''If it is the same strain that we found in these other incidents, we'll know that we are probably dealing with another attack,'' Swenarski said.

Of the previous deaths, three have been tied by investigators to tainted mail sent to news organizations or members of Congress. The other mystery is the Oct. 31 death of Kathy Nguyen, a 61-year-old hospital worker in New York City.

Only 18 cases of natural inhalation anthrax have been recorded in the past 100 years, so the Connecticut case is ''most likely the result of a criminal act,'' said Lisa Swenarski, a CDC spokeswoman.

Yesterday, CDC agents vacuumed samples at Immanuel Lutheran Church and could be seen talking with people at a bank. At the Nu-Look Hair Salon, a CDC agent wearing blue gloves took swabs of surfaces. She also took samples from the ceiling air duct.

Federal investigators had scoured Lundgren's home, going through her trash and mail and checking her mailbox. They also have tried to trace every moment of the final two weeks of her life, interviewing relatives and friends who drove her to doctors' appointments.

Lundgren's last doctor's appointment was Oct. 26 for a pneumonia shot. She was hospitalized on Nov. 16 and died five days later. It was not clear how much help she was able to give investigators.

The preliminary testing was done on 18 samples from her house.

Tests on 28 samples from the nearby Seymour post office and 64 samples from the Wallingford post office, which sorts mail for southern Connecticut, also came back negative, the governor said.

About 1,150 workers at the two postal installations have been offered antibiotics as a precaution.

The governor said about 400 people, including 350 postal employees and neighbors and acquaintances of Lundgren, have tested negative for anthrax.

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