Food poisoning investigated


STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Public health officials here are investigating a probable salmonella outbreak after at least six people went to the emergency room or their physician's office with symptoms of severe food poisoning.

Routt County Director of Environmental Health Mike Zopf said Friday he believes the cases of salmonella poisoning are at least 11 days old and said there have been no new cases reported since the original event. He believes the poisoning took place over a two-day period close to Dec. 16.

"We have not seen any cases from beyond that time frame," he said.

There have been six confirmed cases (all local residents) and two presumptive cases, Zopf said. One person was hospitalized because a previous medical condition compounded the effects of the food poisoning. The affected people had fairly profound gastrointestinal symptoms, Zopf said.

"They've been real sick for a number of days," Zopf added.

Zopf said Friday health officials are testing food handlers and cooks at a local restaurant for salmonella, but he has not made a determination about the source of the food poisoning and would not name the restaurant.

"We're not really sure," Zopf said. "The restaurant is a good operation and they've gone way beyond what I would expect to help us. It's possible that it doesn't have anything to do with the restaurant. It could be from a piece of fruit."

On Friday, Steamboat Today submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to Zopf's office seeking access to written records on the matter, including the name of the restaurant.

Zopf said his office is cooperating with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association and the Colorado Department of Health in its investigation.

Sue Birch of the VNA said people should not be hesitant to go out to eat in Steamboat Springs this week. However, she stressed the importance of basic personal hygiene, in particular, washing hands often.

"We're investigating a possible outbreak, but it's not confirmed," Birch said. "We're talking to restaurant owners throughout Steamboat. We have not narrowed this down to any one establishment. But it would be misleading to give the impression that it's not safe to go out to eat in Steamboat. We are not closing any establishment. We are just trying to investigate."

Birch is executive director of the Visiting Nurse Association but was acting in the capacity of public health nurse while working on the investigation of the food poisoning.

In addition to Zopf, Nadine Harrach of the Department of Environmental Health is working on the case and Pam Nettleton from the VNA is taking part.

Zopf said one emphasis is on talking to people who became ill to learn what food they ate before they noticed the symptoms. He is also contacting people who ate at the restaurant in question and did not become ill to learn what food items they ate and did not eat.

Zopf indicated cases of salmonella are relatively rare in Steamboat. His office looked into a reported case two years ago believed to be traceable to a catered private party. That business did not come under regulations enforced by his office.

Birch said people should seek medical care if they experience extreme gastric upset or blood in their stool.

Birch said public health officials are working to ensure there is no further risk associated with the outbreak.

"In terms of person-to-person contact, it comes down to hand washing," Zopf said. "That's the key -- good personal hygiene."

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com