By Annette Cary
Herald staff writer
Eight cases of E. coli poisoning have been confirmed in Finley Elementary School students, with four of the children still hospitalized.
Health officials believe they may have found all the people who could have eaten potentially contaminated food in a school lunch program and still are ill. However, now they’re watching for cases that may have spread from one person to another.
They’re particularly concerned about one child with bloody diarrhea who may have contracted E. coli from a sibling. The sibling ate lunch at the school Oct. 6 and had mild symptoms that could have been caused by the bacteria but was not tested for it.
One of the children with a confirmed case of the poisoning was not hospitalized, and three more have been released from hospitals. They may return to school when their symptoms disappear and their doctors say they are ready health officials said.
But Monday, letters went home with elementary children from the Benton Franklin County District Health Department telling parents not to send any children to school if they have diarrhea for fear of spreading E. coli bacteria. Bloody diarrhea is characteristic of the infection.
It was clear Monday night that not all parents are happy with the way the district has handled the outbreak.
Most of about 30 people at the regularly scheduled school board meeting came to listen, but some were more outspoken.
Parents were concerned the district hasn’t done enough to put their minds at ease.
“We need to be reassured, and so far, we haven’t been reassured,” said Sara Mathews, who has two children, ages 7 and 11, attending Finley schools. “Are we sending our kids into a mine field?”
Finley Superintendent Rob Van Slyke said the district is doing everything possible to keep parents informed.
The district is “going overboard” to make sure kids in Finley schools are not at risk of contamination, said Dr. Larry Jecha of the Benton Franklin District Health Department.
“This is probably the safest place to eat right now,” Jecha said.
Meanwhile, the three children at Kennewick General Hospital are doing well, said a hospital spokesman. A 7-year-old girl who developed symptoms that might indicate a potential kidney problem is being treated at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. She’s in satisfactory condition, said a spokesman there.
Health officials are checking for E. coli infection in 26 other people who have reported possible symptoms. Many of those tests already have come back negative, Jecha said.
County health district officials believe the cases of E. coli likely are linked to tacos made with ground beef and served Oct. 6. Although the school district’s kitchen has a good record of food safety and thermometers were used to make sure the meat was done, chunks of the meat may not have been cooked through.
State health officials have finished genetic fingerprinting of the first two confirmed cases of E. coli, said Dr. John Kobayashi. The tests confirmed the cases were linked.
The state is testing hamburger left over from the Oct. 6 lunch to see if it is contaminated with the same strain of E. coli. Those results are expected in a few days.
“It’s encouraging we’re not seeing illness in other school districts,” Kobayashi said.
The meat in the tacos is believed to be U.S. Department of Agriculture commodity beef that had been frozen for more than a year before it was sent to the Finley school district.
The district is ordering new temperature probes that are more sensitive, Van Slyke said. More staff training is planned, and the kitchen’s procedures will be audited.
“We are going to take such extreme measures we can be sure this never, ever, ever happens again,” Van Slyke said. “When this is all over, Finley is going to be the model for food safety for schools.”