E. coli may have claimed second victim


Autopsy on woman who died Tuesday will confirm her

REDWOOD CITY -- Coroner's investigators performed an autopsy Thursday on the body of 95-year-old Mildred Gonzalez, who may be the second person to die in an E. coli outbreak that has sickened dozens since it surfaced three weeks ago in a Portola Valley retirement home.

Gonzalez, one of 13 confirmed E. coli sufferers, died at The Sequoias-Portola Valley on Tuesday.

She had been hospitalized twice at Stanford Medical Center since the Oct. 9 outbreak of the infection, and was released back to the retirement center Monday after a five-day hospital stay, Coroner Robert Foucrault said.

"We want to look into this a little further," he said Thursday. "The Health Department doesn't want a big outbreak of this."

Foucrault said the autopsy would include culture tests -- where tissue samples are extracted and studied -- that would take two or three days to complete.

He and Health Department officials declined to speculate on whether Gonzalez succumbed to the intestinal infection or simply passed away from old age.

Last Sunday, 85-year-old Alice McWalter died when E. coli caused kidney failure and abnormal blood clotting.

Dozens of other residents and staff members of the 315-bed facility reported severe stomach cramps and nausea, and several were hospitalized.

While none of the sufferers has been quarantined, The Sequoias continues to keep ill residents isolated in their apartments, and sick employees are staying home. Unaffected residents have been asked not to come and go too frequently.

"We've asked that people leave only when they have appointments that are urgent," said Beverly Thames, a spokesperson for the Health Department. "We've asked them not to leave the facility, but we're not keeping them there. We're asking visitors not to come until this is cleared up."

E. coli O157 has an incubation period of eight days, she said, and epidemiologists believe a second incubation period will be ending in the next few days.

The Health Department continues to track the source of the outbreak, and has said the home's food and food handlers have been thoroughly examined. The Sequoias' kitchen is managed by Sodexho USA, a multinational food and supplies company.

Dean Peterson, the County's director of environmental health, said his office had inspected The Sequoias' kitchen several times over the past few years, and as recently as last June.

"Their history, in a nutshell, has been excellent," Peterson said. "They are a model facility for food and food preparation, and I don't see them ever rated anything less than 'excellent.'"

On Tuesday, a Seattle-based attorney specializing in food-poisoning cases told The Times several relatives of E. coli sufferers had contacted him about filing lawsuits related to the outbreak.