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E. coli Poisoning a Drag for Finley Students

By Annette Cary Herald staff writer

No dangerous E. coli bacteria has been found in a state test of cooked hamburger left over from a meal served at Finley schools Oct. 6.

But that doesn’t mean the tacos served that day did not infect schoolchildren with E. coli, said Dr. John Kobayashi of the state Department of Health late Thursday.

Just because some of the meat tested negative doesn’t mean the bacteria wasn’t elsewhere in the meat served that day, said Benton Franklin County Health Department officials. Food served at Finley Elementary School is suspected of giving 11 students E. coli poisoning.

The state also is looking at lettuce served Oct. 6 and 8 and sandwiches served Oct. 8 as possible sources of the illness, although ground beef is more often the source of E. coli outbreaks.

The state has finished a test for the bacteria in about a half tray of leftover meat, which included some of the large chunks of beef that would have been most likely not to have been cooked all the way through.

Health officials still are doing tests on uncooked ground beef from the same lot of beef as that served Oct. 6.

On Thursday, one more E. coli case was confirmed, bringing the number of Finley schoolchildren infected to 11, according to the county health department. The latest case is a kindergarten student who’d been to a doctor last week, but a test for the E. coli bacteria was just completed this week.

Three children were at Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle, and three more were at Kennewick General Hospital. They were all stable, county health officials said.

Fifth-grad classmates Brooke Sakach, 11, and Kimberly Price, 10, were sharing a balloon-filled hospital room Thursday in Kennewick for treatment of E. coli poisoning.

“Crampy,” they said in unison, when asked how they felt.

Besides intermittent stomach pain, both also had sore backs around their kidneys.

Brooke’s grandmother, Lorraine Spinos of Richland, said Brooke started feeling ill when the girl was visiting her Oct. 16 in Richland.

“She was very tired and she didn’t want to go to the park,” Spinos said.

Kimberly’s been sick since the weekend of Oct. 10, when she was staying on the Oregon Coast with her father.

Kimberly cannot digest milk, so at first her mother, Shelley Stillar, assumed it was a routine bout of stomach trouble caused by lactose intolerance.

When Stillar learned a week ago of the first confirmed cases of E. coli infection among Finley children, she took Kimberly to the doctor immediately.

Because Kimberly’s case has lingered, she was admitted to the hospital Wednesday.

Particularly if children become dehydrated, their kidneys may be damaged by the illness caused by the bacteria.

Both children considered the hospital an adventure at first, their parents said. The school sent balloons and teddy bears, and the PTA sent stuffed animals.

Kimberly liked having a television with her own remote control.

“I like the nurse beeper,” Brooke said.

But by Thursday afternoon, the novelty had worn off and both girls said they wanted to go home.

Neither of the parents staying with the girls Thursday said they were angry with the school, which may have served food contaminated with E. coli bacteria, despite a good food safety record.

“I’m not ready to point fingers until we know where it came from,” Shelley Stillar said.

“I’d eat lunch at school,” said Brook’s father, Steve Sakach. Considering this was the first case of E. coli poisoning he heard of linked to a school lunch, problems appear to be few, he said.

However, Brooke’s grandmother is more concerned. “I hope we get school lunches improved,” she said.

About 150 people attended a public meeting on the E. coli outbreak Thursday night in Finley.

One man said he was keeping his children out of school for fear they would be contaminated with the E. coli bacteria.

But Superintendent Rob Van Slyke said he feels safe in sending his daughter to school because of the precautions the district has taken.

The county health department has given every elementary school classroom a lesson on how to thoroughly wash hands, said Mary Ferluga of the county health department.

All the cases reported so far have been considered part of the initial outbreak and not secondary infections because the first symptoms of all the children appeared within the incubation period – 12 days – of the suspect meals.

However, children with the illness can spread the bacteria if they don’t wash their hands thoroughly after they use the bathroom.

Janet Westfall, the mother of four children in Finley schools, drew applause when she said parents who are upset about the outbreak should “take all that anger and focus” on teaching their children to do a good job of washing their hands.

Other parents asked about food preparation techniques.

The hamburger served Oct. 6 was cooked in a large kettle for 3 to 4 hours and stirred often, school officials said. Thermometers read as high as 190 degrees, well over the temperature that kills E. coli bacteria.

The hamburger was from the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity program, received as part of a 34-case shipment in January. Sixteen of the cases remain, but for now, the school district is serving no ground beef from any source.

The USDA recommends the meat in the 36 pound cases be used in nine months to ensure the best appearance and flavor. The beef had been produced a year ago, but keeping it frozen longer than nine months should not have contributed to any E. coli problem, health officials said.

Finley residents have set up accounts to help families whose children have E. coli infections at Keybank in Kennewick.

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