Costs high from illness

Salmonella two years ago costs taxpayers

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A salmonella outbreak that occurred almost two years ago in Steamboat Springs cost taxpayers almost $40,000 and cost individuals more than $66,000, not to mention a lot of upset stomachs.

Those were the estimates the Routt County Department of Environmental Health gave the City Council on Tuesday night when it presented calculations for the costs of the foodborne illness outbreak.

Nadine Harrach with the environmental health department said the incident was the only foodborne outbreak the county department has ever handled.

"Foodborne illness outbreaks are expensive propositions for communities," Harrach said. "This is our only experience, so we have nothing to compare it with."

The outbreak occurred Dec. 16, 2003, at the Seasons at the Pond restaurant, and 51 cases of salmonella were reported in the weeks that followed. Those contaminated ranged from 4 to 72 years old, and 96 percent were Routt County residents.

A group of Steamboat Springs School District food service workers were among those infected. The cost of the infection to the individual was estimated at $1,300 per person.

Three of those infected were hospitalized. All those infected said they had diarrhea, 81 percent had abdominal pain and 75 percent had a fever, according to environmental health statistics.

Harrach said people interviewed told her "it was the sickest I have ever been."

The environmental health department worked with the Visiting Nurse Association, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a regional epidemiologist to curtail the outbreak.

"It happens so fast, you really don't have the time to do anything but react," Harrach said.

The work those agencies did cost taxpayers $39,245. The largest cost was $16,000 from the VNA, which did the lab tests on individuals thought to have salmonella.

Indirectly, the outbreak also cost taxpayers $4,500 from the cafeteria workers who were infected. The workers combined took 39 days of sick leave, which was much lower than it could have been because many were sick during the Christmas holiday, Harrach said. While cafeteria workers were out, bus drivers, principals and school administrators pitched in to help serve students' lunches.

Perhaps the largest costs were paid by Seasons at the Pond, which has since shut down. The restaurant estimated it lost $240,000 in monthly revenue for the last eight months it was opened. It spent $975 on lab tests. The staff lost $25,000 in wages, and insurance rates increased by $2,600. The restaurant also has $900,000 pending in lawsuits.

Harrach said it was thought that salmonella was spread through a fruit salad served at the restaurant and that 95 percent of the people who ate the fruit salad become ill. Although the fruit could have been contaminated before it reached the restaurant, Harrach said a food worker there most likely contaminated the salad, because no other outbreaks were reported regionally or nationally.

"It was at one of the cleanest (restaurants) in town, which shows it can happen to anybody," Harrach said.

As bad as the outbreak was, Harrach said, it could have been worse. The chain of contamination was broken early, it did not spread to any schools or to children through the food service workers, there was not a second wave of outbreaks, and no one died, she said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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