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Anthrax traces found at Connecticut mail facility

HARTFORD, Connecticut (CNN) -- Trace amounts of anthrax were found on four pieces of mail-sorting equipment in a postal facility that handled the mail of a woman who died of inhalation anthrax, the United States Postal Service announced Sunday.

The same facility processed mail for the town of Seymour, where one residence received a letter that was found to have a trace of anthrax on it.

A statement from Postal Service said the traces of bacteria were found at the Southern Connecticut Processing and Distribution Center in Wallingford, which handles mail for the small towns of Oxford and Seymour.

Oxford resident Ottilie Lundgren, 94, died November 21, becoming the nation's fifth anthrax fatality. Seymour resident John Farkas received a letter at his home that investigators found to have a trace amount of anthrax on the envelope. No one in Farkas' household is ill, health officials said.

Bill Gerrish, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Health, called the discovery of traces of the bacteria at the postal facility an important finding in the investigation of Lundgren's death.

The Postal Service statement said there are no plans to close the Wallingford facility while the affected equipment is isolated and cleaned. The equipment, which involves adjacent machines, has been covered with shrink-wrap in preparation for the decontamination.

Public health officials said the level of contamination found poses no risk to postal employees or customers.

"This is a very small amount of anthrax," said Dr. Joxel Garcia, the Connecticut commissioner of public health. "The people of Connecticut should not be concerned about opening their mail."

In all, 389 samples were taken in four rounds of testing at the facility. In the latest round, November 28, five samples revealed traces of anthrax. Before the latest testing, all of the samples were negative for anthrax.

"This finding is not a complete surprise," said Jon Steele, vice president of the U.S. Postal Service's Northeast operations. "It's important for people to know that the mails are safe and they should not be alarmed."

Investigators have been trying to determine how Lundgren, who was mostly housebound, contracted the deadly bacteria. Testing on her home has not found any traces of anthrax. Authorities believe she may have been infected by a letter that was cross-contaminated with a letter containing anthrax.

The Wallingford distribution center has 1,146 employees and handles about 3 million pieces of mail daily. Bill Cannon, another postal spokesman, said about 900 of those employees were given antibiotics November 21 as a precaution. But, he said, many of the employees appear not to be too worried about anthrax infection. Most of them don't wear the masks and gloves provided at the facility, Cannon said.

Meanwhile, Gerrish said state health officials held a working meeting earlier Sunday with officials from the New York City Department of Public Health. He said officials shared information and case data on the Lundgren case and that of Kathy Nguyen, a New York hospital worker who died October 31 of inhalation anthrax. Like Lundgren, Nguyen had no apparent connection to the U.S. Postal Service, government offices or media outlets that have received or processed anthrax-laden letters.


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