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Anthrax Investigation: NYC Woman Dies from Inhalation Anthrax

Aired October 31, 2001 - 11:06   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get back to the big story of the hour, and that is the death of a woman, 61 years old, said to have passed away early this morning from inhalation anthrax.

In New York outside the hospital, Lenox Hill, Jason Carroll with us watching that -- Jason.

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Bill, both the hospital and medical examiner's office confirmed that Kathy Knewin, 61 years old, died from complications of inhalation anthrax early this morning at 1:16 a.m. Knewin worked at the Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital, not too far from here. She worked in a stockroom located in the basement, in the same area as the mail room.

Just to give you some history of what happened here, she became sick on Thursday. She complained of having a headache and high fever. She went to work on Thursday, work again on Friday. Over the weekend, her condition became much worse. Finally on Sunday, she checked herself into Lennox Hill Hospital. Doctors immediately put her on a respirator. Her condition at that point, critical.

This has been a baffling case for investigators, because they simply have no idea how in the world Knewin contracted this deadly disease. So what they are going to do, is they are going to retrace her steps. They have taken environmental samples from Manhattan, Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital. They have taken about 40 samples. Ten of those samples are back so far. Those samples have all turned up negative. They are also going to be taking environmental samples from her home, from her apartment in the Bronx. They will also be interviewing her friends and her coworkers, trying to get some information, because unfortunately, Knewin was so sick, she was unable to provide investigators with much in the way of helpful information. This is the first confirmed case of inhalation anthrax in New York City, and the first fatality -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Jason, Jason Carroll live in Manhattan, with the sobering news again today of that fatality earlier.

Now one suspected explanation for the Bronx woman's exposure may offer little comfort for the rest of us: the possibility, only a possibility now, of what they are calling cross-contamination, anthrax spores shaking free from a tainted letter and attaching themselves to other mail sent to unintended victims.

Let's talk about the possibilities again now.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, with us this morning, good morning to you.

I heard some of these officials, and again, as they say that they are learning more and more everyday, someone said the further a piece of mail travels throughout the country, the more chance it has of being diluted, in effect, being less effective in terms of weapon. Do you know much about what they are saying on that theory?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think what they are referring to specifically with regards it cross-contamination, the powder actually possibly getting out of one envelope, getting on top of another envelope. The type of anthrax we are talking about here, Bill, the type that causes inhalation anthrax, is very easily aerosolized; it easily can blow off into the air and possibly get into somebody's lungs. But it would be hard for that sort of anthrax, easily aerosolized anthrax, to actually last on the outside of an envelope as it goes through a mailbag, into a mailbox, through the environment. So unlikely that the anthrax on the outside of an envelope would cause inhaled anthrax, if that were the case.

HEMMER: And what they are looking at right now, is certainly the possible that you mention of it being transferred to another piece of mail. But they are also saying no significant case is detected outside of Washington, outside of New Jersey, New Jersey or the state of Florida there. There was a report yesterday that said some spores had been found at a mail facility in Indianapolis, Indiana. Given the fact the government is testing on a daily basis 200 mail facilities, is it likely that indeed spores could show up, but not nearly the level danger us to a human being?

GUPTA: I think you are absolutely right, Bill. And it's interesting, because we talked about this early on when we first saw the sweeps of anthrax and found some positives. A couple of things that work here, Bill. One of the things we mention at that time is the possibility of false positives, you might actually find some anthrax spores, and that test actually gave false positives. The other thing is that, you know, anthrax may have actually been in some of these places prior to September 11th in very, very small concentrations. Now that we are really looking for it, we are seeming to find it. That doesn't take away from the fact that there has been obviously intentional anthrax placed, but that's a good point, Bill.

HEMMER: And also with the woman who passed away this morning, and it's, again, a terrible situation what's happening there, the fourth fatality linked now to inhalation anthrax and exposure to it, but it is said that this woman had flu symptoms last week, I think on Thursday of last week. There was a lesson for all of us, I think. Early detection of flu, don't take any chances at this point. That's not to say, hey, go out and get yourself examined right away just because you have the flu, but just be aware.

GUPTA: Absolutely, and it's a reminder as well that this inhaled anthrax that we have been talking so much about can be a very deadly thing. You know, just to reiterate, Bill, these spores get into the lungs, they get down to the very base of the lungs, the alveoli, they're called. From there, they can release toxins and wreak the havoc that we have been hearing so much about. A common misconception is that it may cause pneumonia, typically doesn't, but as we saw in this case, Bill, Thursday, she had symptoms; by Tuesday, she unfortunately passed on. They can act very quickly.

HEMMER: And just to be fair, 99.9 percent of the people working in the health care industry in this community hasn't seen a case of anthrax.

GUPTA: Correct.

HEMMER: All right, Sanjay, thanks. Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

We will talk again, I'm sure, throughout the morning and the day here.

In the meantime, though, talking about anthrax in the buildings that have been closed, or opened or back and forth sense then, want it move to Capitol Hill and Jonathan Karl, who is watching this now -- Jonathan.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, essentially, what's going on up here as far as the building closures goes, two buildings remain closed, two main upper office building here on the Hill, including the Hart building, where that letter to Senator Daschle was opened. That's the main concern up here, because 50 U.S. Senators have their offices there. Over the weekend, this coming weekend, they are going to seal off the building and begin the decontamination process.

I wanted to talk about something, Bill, that Paula Zahn talked to Trent Lott about this morning, that Senator Bill Frist, kind of the resident expert on this, Dr. Bill Frist, got up and told Republican leaders that that letter that was sent to Daschle carried enough anthrax that if it were properly distributed through the ventilation system in the Hart building could potentially have had enough power to kill everyone in the building. And this plays into something we have been talking about for a while, that substance that was in the Daschle letter, a very sophisticated substance, but a very crude delivery system; they had it in an envelope, meant that the damage was much more limited than it could have been.

What Dr. Frist told senators yesterday was that if that had been distributed through the ventilation systems, and there are six separate ventilation systems in the Hart building, so it would have had to be put in all six of those ventilation systems, there was potential to do much greater damage than simply exposing 28 people in and around the area surrounding Senator Daschle's office. So a real warning to the senators up here, and they don't know how to read this; they don't know if that means that this letter was sent to Daschle as kind of a warning from the terrorists, this is what we could potentially do, or if they simply didn't have the know-how and the ability to distribute it more effectively. So a chilling thought, but also want to put in perspective, because it is very difficult, you can imagine, to get into all six ventilation systems, and it's a matter of using that ventilation system as a delivery device. If the terrorist had done that, this could have been a much worse situation.

HEMMER: Good point. Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill. Jonathan, thanks.




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