Steamboat Springs Local and state health officials have confirmed at least nine cases of salmonellosis since an outbreak of salmonella bacteria sickened patrons at a Steamboat Springs restaurant two weeks ago.
The restaurant, Seasons at the Pond, has been open for less than two months and is the only restaurant connected to the outbreak, said Routt County Director of Environmental Health Mike Zopf.
Between 15 and 20 people have reported symptoms consistent with salmonellosis, the disease caused by salmonella, said Nadine Harrach of the Department of Environmental Health. The symptoms include diarrhea, bloody diarrhea and fever. Officials are still waiting for results from additional tests.
Ironically, among those who fell ill were several Steamboat Springs School District food service workers who ate breakfast Dec. 16 at Seasons on the Pond. The food service workers missed the last week of school and may miss several more days if they are not clear of the infection, said Roberta Gill, the district's food service director.
Harrach said the investigation into the outbreak has identified Dec. 16 as the date of infection. The cause has not been determined yet, though officials believe contaminated fruit is the likely culprit. "Through process of elimination, we seem to be centering on fruit," Zopf said.
A lack of recent cases leads health officials to believe that the chain of contamination has been broken, Harrach said. Symptoms of salmonellosis usually appear within 12 to 36 hours of ingestion of contaminated food.
Seasons at the Pond co-owner and executive chef Bill Lepper said he's devastated by the outbreak.
"I know I'm a freak about my kitchen," Lepper said. "I can't tell you how upset I am. I take full responsibility for it, because I'm the chef.
"We obviously have a concern for the health of our customers and the health of our business."
Sanitizing melon rinds with a bleach solution is one of the steps Seasons at the Pond has taken to prevent another outbreak, Lepper said.
"We're taking tremendous steps," he said. "Whatever happened that day with that melon, or whatever it was, is not going to happen again. We want to build a local clientele. We want them to feel that it's a safe restaurant to go to."
All 24 restaurant employees that handle food have been tested for salmonella contamination, Lepper said. Six employees have tested positive, but only one has shown salmonellosis symptoms. Those six employees will not return to work until the bacteria has expelled itself from their bodies.
Only the one employee who has shown symptoms of salmonellosis is included in the total of nine positive cases of salmonella contamination.
The initial test for possible victims is performed in Steamboat Springs, according to Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association Director Sue Birch. If a test comes back positive, the sample is sent to the state health department, which confirms the positive result, determines the strain of salmonella and extracts its DNA to attempt to link it to other outbreaks across the country. The process will take several weeks, if not months, to complete, Birch said
Four of the positive cases have been linked to the Nuwport strain, which is the fourth most common strain of salmonella in Colorado, according to Birch.
Approximately 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported each year in the United States, but the actual number of infections is probably much greater because many mild cases aren't reported, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Salmonella can be killed by thoroughly cooking infected food, and hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the bacteria. Zopf said, while Season at the Pond is using bleach solution on its melon rinds, thorough rinsing of fruits and vegetables that are not going to be cooked is generally sufficient.
Gill took 11 of her employees to breakfast at Seasons at the Pond on Dec. 16. Five of her employees were violently ill by Tuesday, and all five were kept out of work for the remainder of the week.
"I'm in food service myself," Gill said. "This is like everybody's worst possible nightmare. It's a really tough situation to be in (for a restaurant)."
Gill said the sick employees might miss additional workdays once school resumes Thursday.
"I feed a tremendous amount of kids, and I need to be absolutely certain all of my employees are free of this before they come back to work," she said.
School district staff and administrators pitched in to help with lunch duties, Gill said.
"I called in all my markers," she said. "I had the finance director help serve lunches at the school. People were great."
In the meantime, Lepper said he is worried about the future.
"We're trying to salvage a business, if possible," he said. "The sad thing is it can happen to any person at any time. I've been in this business for 25 years and I've never seen anything like this."