Friday, Oct 21, 2016
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South Bass Island illness reaches 12 states

The number of people who have reported becoming sick after visiting South Bass Island climbed to 750 yesterday, with victims now spanning a total of 12 U.S. states as well as Ontario.

The victims of an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness are from as far away as California, Florida, and Texas and have told investigators they visited the Lake Erie tourist spot this summer, health officials said.

Kristopher Weiss, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Health, said more than 400 calls alone have been received at the Ottawa County Health Department since Friday, when the state agency established a toll-free information line.

As of yesterday afternoon, about 136 people were waiting to be interviewed by a team of officials, who include local health experts; representatives of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as members of the state's health department, environmental protection agency, and even the agriculture department.

"This is truly a local, state, and federal collaboration," Mr. Weiss said.

Mr. Weiss said health officials continue to focus on South Bass Island but have not established a cause or source of the mysterious outbreak, which typically triggers one to two-day bouts of nausea, vomiting, fever, chills, and diarrhea.

In addition to taking information from potential victims, members of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency started conducting stops yesterday at local water supplies - including the water plant of the village of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island.

Carol Hester, a spokesman for the agency, said water and sewer experts are involved in the task of checking all public water systems on the island, which are labeled as such if they supply 25 people or more with water at least 60 days a year.

Ms. Hester was unsure whether actual tests had been conducted yesterday or if results were available.

Last week, the OEPA said well water at two food-service businesses on South Bass Island in Put-in-Bay Township had tested positive last month for E. coli, an indicator of possible fecal contamination.

Authorities have established no link between the businesses' water supplies and the outbreak. No contamination was found at those sites during retests last week.

Maggie Beckford, director of the Put-in-Bay Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the visits yesterday by the myriad of health experts.

"We're absolutely thrilled that the CDC is here," Ms. Beckford said. "We're hoping that between the CDC [and the other agencies] that they will be able to pinpoint the cause."

Ms. Beckford said she's handled more than 300 calls from visitors who want information on whether it's safe to visit.

"We've fielded a lot of phone calls, as has everyone," she said.

Ms. Beckford said she refers those callers to the health department's toll-free line, 1-866-905-4636, which can provide them with the most accurate information to date.

What she does not do, though, is tell them whether or not they should visit the island.

"I feel the best we can do is to allow them to make an informed decision on their own," she said. "I'm not a biologist. I'm not an expert on this. I can't personally reassure someone that everything is going to be fine and they won't get ill."

Health experts plan to keep their information line in operation from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through at least Friday. On Thursday, Mr. Weiss said officials will review the number of calls received to determine whether the hours need to be extended.

Contact Kim Bates at:

or 419-724-6168.

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