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Tainted food suspected in outbreak

Tom Jackson • Sep 25, 2013 at 8:02 PM

“Some of the lunch meat, the ham and the turkey, was contaminated with fecal bacteria,” said Bob England, Erie County’s environmental health director.

Essentially, where there’s fecal bacteria contamination, there is also the likelihood of the suspected virus that caused the illness.

England said it’s important to understand the health department cannot absolutely determine the cause of the sickness, but the evidence at hand allows them to draw the conclusion.

Dozens of people associated with Sawmill Creek Resort fell ill in recent weeks, and their symptoms — vomiting, nausea, stomach pains and diarrhea — led health officials to suspect norovirus was the cause.

The initial sicknesses befell people at the resort during a Sept. 10-13 health care convention, and the number of ill only grew as the days passed.    The final tally as of Tuesday was 79 ill, although the outbreak has apparently slowed.

“It hasn’t gone up too much over the weekend,” England said.

Tests on the resort’s food showed significant amounts of fecal bacteria contamination, England said, specifically on the ham and turkey, and lesser amounts on some cheese. Also, of the people who fell ill at the resort, nearly all of them ate salad. The health department sent several containers of lettuce to state health officials for testing, but for some reason the state didn’t analyze those samples, England said.

The food itself could not be tested for norovirus, also known as the “Norwalk virus,” but the bacteria shows the conditions are present for contamination, England said.

“The best inference you can draw is there was contamination that made its way into something,” he said. “I think we’re fairly conclusive in our results here. We’ve found a smoking gun.”

The health department also cannot prove how the food became contaminated.

“I can’t say for sure, but it may have been hand contamination,” England said, adding that this happens when someone uses the bathroom and does not wash his hands properly.

England said that while he believes the initial outbreak was connected with food contamination — at least two employees at the resort tested positive for norovirus — later cases of the virus may have come from sick people passing on the highly contagious ailment.

The outbreak emerged during a Creative Health Care Management convention that attracted about 370 people to Sawmill Creek.

England said he believes the contaminated food was served on the night of Sept. 10.

Greg Hill, owner of Sawmill Creek, said he hopes the health department identified the cause, but he also pointed out that food was not served on Sept. 10, because the conferees went out to eat. Boxed lunches with ham and turkey were offered Sept. 11, Hill said.

There have been no reports of illnesses in the last few days, Hill said, and his management team has been emphasizing cleanliness.

“We’ve been cleaning the heck out of this place,” Hill said. “I’ve had no cases here in the last four to five days.”

England also said the resort’s staff have gone to great lengths to clean the facility in the wake of the illnesses.

Craig Luzinski, chief operating officer of Creative Health Care Management, said people began getting sick at the conference on the morning of Sept. 12.

“I got sick on the way back,” said Luzinski, who flew back to his home near Denver.

He said the conference was a well-attended hit and he doesn’t know yet if his company will seek an adjustment on the bill from Sawmill Creek.

“I will say honestly right now we’re in the information collection phase,” he said.

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