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Positive Anthrax Sample on Letter at House Near Connecticut Victim

Aired November 30, 2001 - 13:33   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Sorry to interrupt that packaged report from Tom Mintier. We're going to the governor of Connecticut for an anthrax development there.

GOV. JOHN ROWLAND, CONNECTICUT: Joining me this afternoon, our public health commissioner, Joxel Garcia, along with Jim Heather (ph) from the health department, many of you may know, and John Steel from the Postal Service.

As you all know, and certainly the public knows, the Department of Public Health, the Centers for Disease Control, the FBI, state police, have all been investigating the death of Mrs. Lundgren. We also know that Mrs. Lundgren died of inhaled anthrax, and we at this time do not know how mrs. Lundgren contracted that disease, and all of us are working hard it follow up on all of the possibilities.

Over the last week or so, we've had probably 700 tests done -- mailboxes, the properties, soil samples, everywhere from the beauty salon to restaurants that she's frequented, again, numerous tests, all across the Oxford Seymour area, and all of the tests have proved to be negative.

Earlier this week, samples were taken from an envelope in a home in Seymour, which again was reported was the home next to the 84-year- old man who died, non-anthrax related, and indeed the FBI and Centers for Disease Control had gone to the Seymour home, because it was picked up that perhaps they had received a letter that had come in contact with either the Leahy or Daschle letters, in a, as I described the other day, very sophisticated technical capability of the post office.

And so indeed, we did some tests there. Some of the initial tests came back negative. We have final results that have come back today, and showed a positive response to anthrax.

But let me make a few important points. The trace amount of anthrax was tiny. What I mean by that, it was so insignificant that no one in contact with the letter could have gotten anthrax or even become ill. And the anthrax found was very, very small, and there was no health hazard to anyone in the home. And this development is important for a couple reasons.

Number one, it continues to support the theory we've all had that mail can be cross contaminated by other mail that's laced with anthrax, i.e. of course the Leahy and the Daschle letters.

But just as important, it shows how difficult it is for anyone to use the mail to deliver anthrax. If you think about this for a moment, some 600 pieces of mail crisscross this country each and everyday, four billion pieces of mail per week, and with this anthrax case, with the contamination that has taken place in these two particular letters, a very small amount of people have been impacted, so we need to point that out to make sure that everyone understands that cross-contamination can indeed be a possibility, but the possibility of getting sick, the possibility of death, is still considered quite small.

But we still want to continue to work on the investigation and to find, if there is still a direct cross-contamination to Mrs. Lundgren, which we have not found. So we are going to continue testing, we are going to continue working with the Centers for Disease Control, we are going to will continue all our investigative procedures. I want the public to know that it is still very safe to open your mail and still very safe to go on living your lives.

This very small amount of anthrax found could not hurt or make sick anyone in that household, and so we're not taking any other particular precautions at this time. We will, as I said, continue to do tests to be safe.

We should also be reminded that extensive tests were done in Seymour at the post office and of course in Wallingford (ph), those two major facilities, extensive tests were done more than one occasion, and we have not found any anthrax in either of those two locations.

Another point, it's been almost two months now. October 9th was the approximate time of the two letters, and it's been almost two months, and we have not found anyone in Connecticut, besides Mrs. Lundgren, that has had any symptoms. And indeed, even around the country, there have been no other individuals that have become ill since the woman in New York, the 61-year-old woman, and that was a month ago.

As time goes on, the possibility of anybody contracting anthrax becomes less and less and less. This is important information, obviously, because we want to be able to describe to people the precautions that we are taking, at the same time, understanding and recognizing that in spite of the rigorous testing and retesting that has taken place, and the fact that two months have gone by, only one small trace of anthrax has been found in this particular home. And again, I guess to point that out, that means perhaps there is anthrax on all kinds of letters, thousands or millions across the country, but not enough to harm anyone or make anyone sick.

So again, we give you this information, and we, again, encourage people to open their mail, to send out Christmas cards, and that the possibility of being contaminated or impacted is so slight that it is almost immeasurable -- Mark.

QUESTION: A piece of mail that was delivered to Mrs. Lundgren's neighbor has a minute trace of anthrax. Does the letter predate her date of decease? Does it come close to it? Do you have any kind of time -- was it a piece of mail this neighbor held on to? If you can't answer, maybe (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from the Postal Service can.

ROWLAND: I think Joxel could as well. I want to say that the letter was found after.

QUESTION: Can you step to the podium, Dr. Garcia.

JOXEL GARCIA, CONN. PUBLIC HEALTH COMMISSIONER: Yes, the first thing is, that is not a an next door neighbor.

ROWLAND: A mile away, more than a mile away.

GARCIA: And this is part of the surveillance system that we have in the state. There was a case that a person that died unexpectedly. We went through the surveillance system. We did an autopsy to find out the diagnosis. Also we went to the neighbors of that person. During that part of the investigation, we found out there was a letter.

QUESTION: But when was the letter to the neighbor a mile away posted?

GARCIA: It's the same time of the Leahy letter, October 9th.

ROWLAND: That's right, so the letter's almost two months old.

QUESTION: Governor, are we saying then, that in terms of the mail trail, that it's very possible this letter certainly would have been cross contaminated by Daschle or by...

ROWLAND: That would be correct. That letter, that was examined at the Seymour home, we suppose, and have scientific information to show, that it was probably cross-contaminated, and probably one of 300 letters among the Leahy-Daschle letters, and so the point there if it is one of the 300, I think it is significant no point this out, still that trace amount was so small, barely detectable by our scientist, and also was not spread through Wallingford to Seymour through the testing that has taken place.

QUESTION: That was a letter that came through Trenton though.

ROWLAND: That's correct.

QUESTION: And there are possibly 300 that were close proximity to it, so the presumption would be that Ottilie Lundgren had piece of mail also.

ROWLAND: Yes, the assumption would be that first of all -- mrs. Lundgren was not one of the 300. Maybe she was one of 3,000 or three million. But I would, again, supposition, on my part, is that Mrs. Lundgren at age 94 had an immune system far less than yours or mine, and that you and coy have handled her same piece of mail and perhaps not gotten sick, whereas, because of her advanced age, she became ill and obviously passed away. QUESTION: Now the people of Seymour, governor, where that would have gone to, have they been tested?

ROWLAND: The individuals have been -- I don't think they have -- the family members you mean? I don't believe the family members have been tested.

GARCIA: The nasal swabs. Again, it is not a screening test for anthrax, to find out if there is exposure. And like the governor mentioned, we are talking about we are right now in November, the end of November, so the time from inoculation from the anthrax to the symptoms, that timeframe for a person to be exposed to start having symptoms already passed, so that is something that people have to understand. It is extremely important.

ROWLAND: Hold on a second. I'm sorry -- Craig.

Just the one we believe. By the way, there is no magic to the 300. Don't get too excited by the 300. The 300 is merely 15 seconds in time of letters related or near the Leahy letter. So 300 just happens to be a period of 15 seconds. You know, if that letter were out there, could it cross-contaminate many other letters? Sure.

QUESTION: The trace amounts you talked about, have you (UNINTELLIGIBLE), did you find whether anyone could contract that.

ROWLAND: Yes, the trace amounts again were so small that anyone handling the let would not get sick or ill.

QUESTION: How much were there?

ROWLAND: You mean spores or measurement?

GARCIA: Very, very, very few amounts. We have only one...

QUESTION: Please, doctor we can't hear you.

ROWLAND: We have a colony growing, and that came back positive. This is not like in the Leahy letter, that you have, hypothetically, thousands of colony growing.

QUESTION: Do have you to change that standard for someone who is elderly such as Ms. Lundgren. You say is a trace amount that wouldn't hurt someone who is 30 or 40. Do you have to change the standard for what might harm someone who is 60, 70, 80 or 90?

GARCIA: Well, I think I mentioned before, this is a very dynamic scientific process happening right now. We don't know that much about anthrax. This is a learning process for the public health people to clinical medicine. I think the governor is very good essentially in the hypothesis, that we have a person of that age with less immune system is going to be more prone at getting the anthrax than you or myself.

QUESTION: Then you shouldn't make a blanket statement that says a trace amount... ROWLAND: No, no, what we are saying is this trace amount is not dangerous.

We will get you that afterwards if you want the exact amount.

QUESTION: This could have been number 300 next to the Leahy letter, and the number 200 or 100 or the one right next to it would have been increasingly dangerous.

ROWLAND: Don't make any of those scientific guesses, because...

QUESTION: No, we are asking questions...

ROWLAND: I understand. Well, first of all, no one is an expert know what happens to all 300 pieces of mail, and unless you examine every piece of mail. The proof, however, is the fact that passage of time, almost two months, and no one else has gotten sick and no one else has been infected, that's the issue. So we can guesstimate what could of, would of, should of. The point is, that no one else has gotten sick.

Now how Mrs. Lundgren got infected, we still can't find that exact piece.

The reason we actually went and tested this piece of mail in this Seymour home is because the death next door of the 84-year-old, and we were being extremely cautious and we then wanted to research that particular death, was not anthrax related. So had we not even tested this piece of mail, no one would even have suspected that there would be other anthrax traces anywhere.

QUESTION: How can you say that none of the other 300 came to Connecticut when we have one person who died of anthrax and there is no other suspect but the Postal Service, and you have another one right nearby that has trace amounts?

ROWLAND: Right, because of the 300, the Postal Service can determine where those 300 addresses are.

QUESTION: So Mr. Steel, could you address that? This is John Steel from the Postal Service.

JOHN STEEL, U.S. POSTAL SERVICE: Yes, we can tell by zip code address, very precise address. What we can't do is recapture the mail that passed through six weeks ago. It's been disposed of. But we can tell by zip code address the flow of that mail. And only the one piece we are aware of came to Connecticut.

QUESTION: So, John, you would say the mail is safe here still.

STEEL: I would say the mails are safe here in the state, and I would echo what the governor said, in terms of get on with your life. We are going everything we can to make the mail perfectly safe, and to protect our employees and customers.

Yes, sir? QUESTION: How many other pieces of those 300 have been tracked down?

STEEL: This is the only one I'm aware that that has been tracked down.

QUESTION: Governor, what happens now? Will the investigations continue at these locations, or what point is the plug pulled?

ROWLAND: Well, that's a good question. The question always is, when do you stop the investigation? I would suspect that even in New York, in the case of the 61-year-old woman, that investigation is not stopped until we find the person or persons responsible, so what's happening now, the CDC and the FBI will continue to do tests and to see if there is any connection. They are bringing a red team in to really look at evidence and information to see if there is any other connection. What this leads us back to is the summation that we've made since day one, and that is that, presumably, Mrs. Lundgren was affected by cross-contamination. I don't believe it was natural, the so-called natural anthrax. And what it is, is what it is, but now we have to move ahead and figure out the best thing to do.

And we are saying, yes, in one breath we found a very small trace of anthrax in this particular letter, but the important significant information is that almost two months has passed, and billions and billions and billions of letters have circulated through this country, and no one else has been infected.

QUESTION: Yes, but at your last news event, Dr. Jack Garcia said that incubation period can be as much as 45 days. Am I quoting you accurately, Dr. Garcia.

GARCIA: In a person.

QUESTION: What's that.

GARCIA: In a person, that's correct.

QUESTION: Right. So are we 45 days past?

GARCIA: I think we are. I think if we do that calculations, we are past the 45 days already.

QUESTION: Do you have to leave the door open though that there is a possibility that even a trace...

GARCIA: In science, we keep the door open for everything. This is scientific process. We don't speculate. We don't do guesses. We go with the scientific process that we follow. So this is not a guessing game. This is scientific process taking place in the state. We have areas that quality health team in the state, the department of public health, using clinical medicine on the healthcare providers and all directors, and our consulting advisers, CDC.

We have this Connecticut team here, Connecticut public health team, has been working based on science. We are not speculating anything. Anything that we are putting forward is essentially the truth.

QUESTION: Doctor, can you tell us the process going on in the Lundgren home at this point today? Are tests still going on inside the home?

ROWLAND: I'm not sure if there are tests going on inside the Lundgren home.

Jim, step forward.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, there are several things happening in the next day or two. Right now, I think the -- some of our epidemiologists, together with state police and FBI are looking over materials in the home now that we know that it is safe enough to center without a whole lot of protective gear, so it is practical to go in and look over other items in her home. There still may one more round of culturing to take place in the next few days to use compressed air, sort of leaf-blower type things, to see if there is any spores that can be dislodged, to show that -- looking for evidence to see if she was actually exposed in her home, and if there were enough spores to see if there was some in the environment.

QUESTION: Does this discovery of this letter, does it move the investigative process forward more, give you more clues, or does it confuse it? I'm a little lost on that.

ROWLAND: Go right ahead.

QUESTION: I'm not the only one apparently.

GARCIA: The more information you have, the more clues you start putting in the jigsaw puzzle if you look at this that way. Confusion is part of the scientific process. The more confusion, the more we have to come in to try to get some answers. So this is just part of the puzzle.

ROWLAND: Let me say, from an investigate standpoint, it really doesn't help. What will really help is when they open up that Leahy letter, and we can get DNA samples and fingerprints. That will really help in the investigative process.

Now other people that have been infected, the question becomes, were they a target? Anything in common between those that were infected? So you look at the five people that have died, is there anything that is common among them? And so far, you really haven't found anything. I don't think anyone suspects that Mrs. Lundgren was a target.

We all believe, again, unscientifically, because it was not been proven, that she was a victim of cross-contamination.

QUESTION: This may seem like a mundane question, but how is it these folks still have this piece of mail? Was it a personal letter or something?

ROWLAND: Now that, I don't know. QUESTION: Was it a lucky break that it was still around?

ROWLAND: I would call it a lucky break in the sense that it helped us define the issue. And for me, it was a lucky break, because it brought to my attention the fact that there indeed there can be all kinds of very small traces of cross-contamination that we would assume e across the country. But -- I need to underline but -- not nearly lethal or effective enough to make anyone sick, or certainly to cause death.

QUESTION: The reason I ask, is because -- Dr. Garcia, this would be in your court now -- is it possible that certain types of papers are more reflective -- like for example, the slick magazine or a greeting card envelope. They're entirely different textures.

GARCIA: You see, we are talking about spores here. So the spores (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to all the spores are here as the paper (ph), would depend on temperatures, the speed that it is sorted, the humidity and also the type of paper. That's something that we don't have an absolute -- going back to the question before, we don't have absolute answer for that. That's part of the investigative process.

ROWLAND: We will go to Lisa.

QUESTION: Wouldn't that have been picked up in the 15 seconds testing by the post office?

ROWLAND: That's the point. It didn't necessarily have to be one of the -- the 300 is just 15 seconds. It could be 15 minutes. It could be one piece from the 300 that could cross-contaminate to a piece here, to a piece there, you know, so I guess the point I want it make, and you know, it's significant, that is that perhaps thousands or millions of pieces of mail could have come in contact with the Leahy letter in some way shape or form, second, third or fourth generation, yet not enough anthrax to even make someone sick.

The reason I raise that point is that to deliver anthrax through the mail is not a very effective way to harm people. It is an effective way to scare people. And clearly, the people responsible for this have done a good job scaring people. Had they done a good affecting people or infecting people? No. Especially when you look at the lethalness that the Leahy letter has. Yet now many people have been impacted? Five, and a few others have been sick.

QUESTION: You don't have -- if these 300 pieces of mail, or 299 pieces of mail, didn't end up in Connecticut, where did they go, and why haven't you found them yet?

STEEL: They have been delivered, and I don't have the information. That is part of our investigation. I don't have the information as to where they would be specifically, but I know that this is the only letter that was destined for Connecticut.

QUESTION: Have they been tested?

STEEL: I couldn't tell you. That's up to our law enforcement people. We are continuing to look. This is unfolding as we speak. Within the last three or four days, we have gotten this depth of information that heretofore we may have had, but didn't have an occasion to use.

QUESTION: So, Mr. Steel, you are saying this is the only letter that came to Connecticut?

QUESTION: With Wallingford and Seymour, have those tests been done, and are the results back?

STEEL: We have done four sets of tests. The last test was the vacuum test. We are awaiting those results. The Wallingford facility is probably the most tested facility outside of the two in question, Brentwood and Trenton, but it's been exhaustive, and they've all come back to date as negative.

QUESTION: Do you have the technology in the Wallingford facility like you have in the New Jersey facility, to track if Mrs. Lundgren's mail was next to the piece of mail...

STEEL: It is common technology throughout our system based on bar-code matching.

QUESTION: ... the bar code of what the 300 pieces of mail...

STEEL: Yes, we should be able to. But not in Wallingford, beyond that.

QUESTION: Excuse me, didn't you just say two questions back in an answer, that this one we're talking about today, the one a mile away from Ottilie Lundgren's house is the only one in that 300 group.

STEEL: From Trenton new Jersey.

QUESTION: From Trenton, New Jersey. So if you know that for a fact, then this letter delivered to one of her neighbors could have cross-contaminated her mail then, from some other location.

STEEL: That's possible. But we have gone this far with it.

QUESTION: Not in that batch.

STEEL: Not in that batch.

QUESTION: Nothing else came to Connecticut.

STEEL: That's right.

WOODRUFF: We have been listening to a news conference with the governor of Connecticut and other Connecticut state officials, health and law enforcement, postal officials, talking about a new piece of information, essentially that they discovered that someone who lived not too far from Ottilie Lundgren, perhaps a mile or so away, received a letter that apparently was contaminated at an original sorting place in Trenton, New Jersey with those heavily anthrax-contaminated letters that went to Senator Patrick Leahy, Senator Tom Daschle and others. I want to bring in Eileen O'Connor again.

Eileen, it is very easy to get confused here about what we're talking about, because Ottilie Lundgren, the 94-year-old woman who died, did not get -- she wasn't the one who sent a letter from Trenton, New Jersey, but those heavily laced anthrax letters obviously touched a lot of other letters in processing.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and what they did is the postal office has basically gone back and they've looked at letters that went through the machines in Trenton, New Jersey around the same time as the Leahy and Daschle letter, and then they determine via post codes that went through the machines, where they were sorted, where the letters were gone. They don't know who they went to, just they went to a post code.

So There is a little bit of assumption here, that they are assuming that this was one of those 300 letters that went out, was close to those other letters in the sorting machine, went out to one of them to Connecticut, to this postal code. The reason they found this letter is that the person next door, an older man died last week unexpectedly. They were suspicious of that death. They did an autopsy, ruled out anthrax. But they had already gone to the neighbor's houses and tested mail around there.

So what they are also saying here is that, look the bottom line here is that, yes, cross-contamination of mail is possible. But also, that it is very unlikely, given the amount of spores found on this letter, that -- and also the fact you haven't had hundreds of people sick, thousands of people sick, that people can get sick or die from cross-contamination. Ottilie Lundgren obviously did get sick and die, and that is the conundrum.

WOODRUFF: It is still not clear to me, Eileen, whether they are saying that this letter that did reach someone who lived in the Connecticut area where she lived, whether that letter touched a piece of mail she might have gotten and whether that could have made a difference. Or you are saying the anthrax number of spores would have been so small that it presumable wouldn't have killed her.

O'CONNOR: That's what they are saying. And what they are also surmising is that perhaps there was another letter that came into contact with the Leahy or Daschle that had a lot more spores on it and came into contact with hers.

WOODRUFF: We will continue to try to unravel this ever- mysterious story.

Eileen O'Connor with me here in Washington.




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