The theory about how the country's anthrax attack unfolded last month seemed pretty plausible. Yes, the story had loose ends, but the basic idea was that anyone who'd come down with the disease had either been in direct contact with letters laced with spores or had been in a room that a letter passed through.
That was before Kathy Nguyen died. On Thursday, Oct. 25, the Vietnamese-born hospital worker came down with chills and muscle aches. She went to work Thursday and Friday at the stockroom of the Manhattan Eye, Ear & Throat Hospital on Manhattan's Upper East Side. But the symptoms worsened, and on Sunday she was hospitalized with severe breathing problems, fluid in her lungs, sputum tinged with blood and a 102[degree]F fever. By last Wednesday, Nguyen had succumbed to a galloping case of inhalational anthrax. She was 61.
What makes Nguyen's case so baffling is that she didn't fit any of the profiles of a potential anthrax victim. She didn't work in a post office or for the media, which have been the targets of at least three anthrax-laden letters. The stockroom where she worked adjoins the mailroom, and she did occasionally handle mail. But no suspicious letters turned up at the hospital. And tests have found no signs of anthrax either at her workplace or her apartment in the Bronx, where she lived alone. Nasal swabs of people who worked with or near Nguyen have come back negative as well.
In fact, after 17 cases and four deaths, officials are coming to the realization that they know little about anthrax in general and about this attack in particular. Anthrax spores have been detected at a widening list of sites. In the past week they showed up for the first time at a mailroom in the Washington, D.C., V.A. Medical Center; a postal facility in Kansas City, Mo.; a shop in Indianapolis, Ind., that repairs postal machines; a third New Jersey post office and a sixth in Florida; in four mailrooms at the Food and Drug Administration in Rockville, Md.; at a newspaper in Pakistan; and at the U.S. embassies in Peru and Lithuania.
But at the same time, the number of new anthrax infections has grown by only three--Nguyen's, and cases of skin anthrax that struck a New Jersey woman and a New York Post employee. Because the first two people evidently had no direct exposure to any of the known anthrax letters, nor were they known to have spent significant periods of time in the post offices that handled them, it has become increasingly hard to figure out what's going on. Maybe it's a lot easier to get the disease than the experts thought, or maybe some individuals are particularly susceptible. Maybe more letters went out than the authorities yet know about. Or maybe both women are the first victims of an entirely new form of attack that has nothing to do with the mail.