Anthrax in NYC victim 'indistiguishable' from germ on letter

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Associated Press WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- The anthrax that killed a Manhattan hospital worker is virtually identical to the bacteria found in contaminated letters sent to the Senate majority leader and media outlets in New York, a federal medical official said Thursday.

Cultures from Kathy Nguyen are "what we call indistinguishable from all the others," said Dr. Steven Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asked if the bacteria matched spores found in a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Ostroff said: "All of them have been basically indistinguishable from each other."

Anthrax-tainted letters were also sent to NBC and the New York Post, causing skin anthrax infections. All three letters were sent from Trenton, N.J., and their source is the subject of a massive investigation by medical and criminal authorities.

The Daschle letter is believed to have contaminated Washington's main postal facility and more than a dozen federal buildings. Two of the nation's four anthrax fatalities since early October were Washington postal workers.

Nguyen, 61, a supply room worker at Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, died Wednesday of inhalation anthrax.

Ostroff said anthrax tests were negative on the woman's clothing, which had initially tested positive. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said tests from the small hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side and the woman's apartment a few miles away in the Bronx were also negative.

The mayor also said a hospital co-worker with a suspicious lesion had tested negative for anthrax.

The hospital, which is almost exclusively for outpatients, has been closed since Tuesday. All workers and most patients and visitors from the last two weeks are being given antibiotics.

Another CDC official said a review of postal routes that could have led to Nguyen has yielded no evidence so far that mail was the source of the bacteria.

"We are reviewing the routes that mail might have traveled to reach her," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, speaking in Washington. "So far we have found no clues to suggest that the mail or the mail handling was the cause of her exposure."

She also said investigators had found that the anthrax Nguyen was exposed to responds to antibiotics, leading officials to suspect that she may have sought treatment too late for the drugs to work.

Nguyen's death, along with a skin anthrax case in New Jersey, have raised fears that the germ is spreading beyond the mail, media outlets and government buildings. Besides checking the postal system, investigators scoured Nguyen's home and workplace in search of clues that might tell how she was infected.

"What we're trying to do is backtrack in this woman's life," New York Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik said Wednesday. He said investigators were trying to determine "who her friends were, who she associated with, and who knows where she's been."

Nguyen checked herself into Lenox Hill Hospital on Sunday. She spent the entire time sedated and on a ventilator, unable to provide any clues to investigators.

Nguyen's colleagues and neighbors said her life focused almost exclusively on work and home. The divorced Vietnamese immigrant had no relatives nearby and lived alone. She worked afternoons and nights and took the subway home.

"We don't know how Kathy got this," said Anna Rodriguez, the building manager and a friend of Nguyen. "It's not like Kathy traveled a lot or visited a lot of people. She was a person who concentrated on work and home, work and home."

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