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MORNINGS WITH PAULA ZAHN

Authorities Close Off Neighborhood of Connecticut Anthrax Victim

Aired November 22, 2001 - 07:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Turning now to bioterrorism, anthrax arrives in small town USA. An elderly Connecticut woman is dead of inhaled anthrax and investigators are baffled.

Michael Okwu is standing by in Oxford, Connecticut with what's known about the mystery death thus far -- Michael, good morning.

MICHAEL OKWU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning to you, Leon.

Mystery is definitely the word that is being used here across the state of Connecticut and I imagine all across the country. Ottilie Lundgren died yesterday, six days after she went to the hospital complaining about respiratory problems. Inhalation anthrax, of course, ultimately took her life, and since that time it has become mystery number one here in the state of Connecticut.

And as the FBI investigation continues this Thanksgiving morning, the state police have shut down parts of her neighborhood to prying eyes. I am standing in front of a police, portable police command center that has been setup about half a mile down the road from her very remote home in this bucolic town of Oxford, Connecticut.

Now, hers is the second perplexing death of anthrax in two months. She, of course, was not a postal worker and she had no apparent connection to any government facility or to any media outlets. Authorities are operating under the premise that she may have been infected through cross-contamination, although at this time no suspicious letter has been found at her home.

Yesterday, investigators sealed off her home and began interviewing neighbors, friends and relatives, essentially trying to retrace her steps and construct some sort of a time line of events in her life. And, Leon, they're looking into the possibility that she may have crossed paths with Kathy Nguyen, who, of course, was the first victim of inhalation anthrax in New York who died mysteriously -- Leon.

HARRIS: Yes, they pretty much have to look at everything in this case. There's no glaring here, smoking gun, if you will.

Michael Okwu, thank you very much. We'll get back to you later on for more on that.

Let's look more deeply now at the question of how did this Connecticut woman get anthrax or how could she have.

Our bioterrorism analyst Javed Ali joins us. He helps us to explore this big question. Good to see you this morning. Happy holiday to you and thank you for coming in this morning on a holiday.

JAVED ALI, CNN BIOTERRORISM ANALYST: Thank you.

HARRIS: We sure appreciate it.

Now that this case has come to some sad finality here, any ideas about what may have happened here?

ALI: I think the strongest possible explanation, Leon, is what Michael just reported, the cross-contamination with a piece of mail or some other object that was delivered through the mail, based on what we've seen over the last seven weeks in this country. But, you know, there are other sort of speculations out there. But at least from my perspective, the cross-contamination theory holds the strongest weight at this point.

HARRIS: Yes, so we still don't know for sure yet what the test results were on the two different postal facilities that have been handling mail that go to her region?

ALI: Right. Those test results haven't come back with any definitive results. Also, I think they're going to have to sort of do environmental testing of buildings, objects, structures that she may have visited over the past two or three weeks, people that were, she was in contact with. So maybe they'll have to have nasal swabs or other kind of samples or tests will have to be done on them to determine exactly how did she come in contact with the source that was then rendered airborne and caused an infectious dose for her to contract the pulmonary form of the disease.

HARRIS: Yes, as a matter of fact, you know, one thing I heard when you mentioned the other people in her life, I understand that she's, every time she went out someplace she had to be accompanied by someone or she was accompanied by someone. This could actually help investigators quite a bit, couldn't it?

ALI: It would. I mean if someone else who was in contact with her then tested positive for the presence of the bacteria or the spores on their person or in their particular house or building or on their clothes, it would be another clue. But there's just no evidence to suggest any of that evidence is there right now.

HARRIS: All right, so if we can't come up with any clear link between any of the postal facilities or any mail that she may have received, does this necessarily mean that it was an airborne delivery of a biological weapon here? What do you think?

ALI: If there was some type of large scale aerosol release, we would have seen the presence of the spores across a wider area in that region or whatever the region where she was traveling or she was going through.

HARRIS: Right.

ALI: And, again, that evidence hasn't come forward. I mean you would see spores over a large swath of land and that evidence just isn't there. And I also don't think the explanation of it being a natural source is sort of valid at this point. Apparently there hasn't been a case of anthrax in Connecticut since the 1950s. That's not to say the spores aren't in the soil, but for them to get lifted into the air I just don't think that's plausible.

HARRIS: You know, I have to think that authorities have got to be concerned right now about hysteria on the horizon. We've got flu season coming up, right? And there's been so much talk about the symptoms and this is, this woman, Ottilie Lundgren, did exactly what people are instructed to do when they have flu-like symptoms. She went to the hospital and still she met this fate that she ended up suffering here. Do you see potentially on the horizon here with this flu season coming on a really, I don't want to use the word hysteria here, but a big problem with this?

ALI: Well, I think the federal government, working in partnership with the state and local public health authorities will have to come up with some kind of protocol to reassure the public, to reassure even local and state physicians and public health care providers to sort of let them know how to differentiate between a case of, a potential case of pulmonary anthrax and just cases of the flu. And we're going to, with flu season coming on, we're going to see tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people coming down with the flu in the next three, four, five months.

So I think that's going to be important in terms of reassuring the public.

HARRIS: And we could still, though, be looking at a big log jam at the hospitals, and that's a problem that we'll have to keep our eyes our for here in the media.

Javed Ali, thank you very much for your time and for your insight. We sure do appreciate it. Again, happy Thanksgiving and thanks for coming in this morning on the holiday.

ALI: Thank you, Leon.

HARRIS: All right, take care.

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