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Health officials seek answers to Saratoga Springs sickness

By Jed Boal, KSLTV

Saratoga Springs lifted its drinking water boil order Saturday, but people are still getting sick, and at least one person plans to sue the city.

Many residents are frustrated and still afraid to drink the water.

"We've been sick for a week," says Elizabeth Harmer.

She and her husband, and three of their four kids, have been sick with nausea, vomiting and stomach problems. The sickness started in her family more than a week ago, and she has neighbors who just got ill Monday.

"I don't know how much longer it's going to last, but we've all been sick," Harmer says.

Until Monday, she was upset with the lack of official information, but the county health department has now updated its website with the latest detail.

The Utah County Health Department and the state say the water is safe, but they still need to pinpoint the source of the bacterial outbreak that has sickened many.

A woman named Niki Diaz, through her lawyer, notified the city she plans legal action for the sickness that sent her to the emergency room. According to her attorney's statement, she continues to need medical care as she recovers from her campylobacter infection.

Health officials issued the boil water order Thursday and lifted it Saturday after chlorinating the system.

The city continues to work with the county and state health departments and the Utah Division of Drinking Water to get to the bottom of the problem.

"We're trying to be cautious," says Saratoga Springs City Manager Ken Leetham. "The water is safe to drink."

The Utah County Health Department counts 15 lab confirmed cases of campylobacter but cannot confirm the source. Officials still think water is the likeliest common link. Dozens, maybe hundreds more are sick, but did not go to a doctor.

Dr. Joseph Miner, the Executive Director of the Utah County Health Department says many of the ill likely got sick after one person in the house was sickened by the water and spread it to others.

"Individuals who have this kind of illness should not prepare food for others in the family, because that is a risk no matter how well you wash your hands," Miner says.

If people continue to get sick after chlorinating in the system, that may lead health investigators in a different direction.

"That's one thing we'll be looking for: new cases which are continuing to occur even though the water has been chlorinated, or once they discontinue chlorinating the water," Miner says.

As health specialists search for the source, Miner says the outbreak coincides with the city turning on the pressurized irrigation system. If someone working on both water lines mixed them up, that could lead to bacterial contamination.

"That's called a cross-connection, and that contaminated irrigation water can get into the public drinking water system," Miner says.

The city is looking into new installations and construction on water lines to see it that's how the bacteria got into the system.

Five deep wells supply the water and are considered protected. For that reason, Saratoga Springs does not regularly chlorinate the water unless there's an emergency like this.

"We're going to continue to chlorinate the system until we can locate the source of any bacteria that may have caused these illnesses," Leetham says.

The city manager says they may consider a chlorinating system to prevent these problems in the future, and the executive director of the health department recommends it.

Residents just hope it ends soon.

"It's uncomfortable," Harmer says. "It's sick. You don't want to go on not knowing how long that's going to last."

The health department plans to update its outbreak website daily.

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