By Jayson Jacoby
City, county and state officials still have more questions than answers about the source of the cryptosporidium that has sickened dozens of Baker City residents.
But as they wait for results from a Seattle lab that’s testing water samples, there’s actually a more immediate concern, said Dr. Bill Keene, senior epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Division who is staying in Baker City while the investigation continues.
Keene said that once crypto has infected people, there’s a significant risk that the illness can be spread to others.
Which is why good hygiene, and in particular diligent hand-washing, is something of a mantra for Keene.
“People can do a lot at home to minimize the chance of spreading this to relatives and others,” he said this morning.
Keene emphasized that the need for clean applies to everyone, not just those who have either been confirmed to be infected with crypto or who have had its classic symptoms of persistent watery diarrhea and stomach cramps.
The reason, he said, is that people can become infected with crypto, and thus are capable of spreading it through their feces, yet not show even the slightest of symptoms.
Although state regulations call for restaurant workers and other food-handlers to use bottled or boiled water to wash their hands, Keene said the risk of spreading crypto after washing your hands, or showering, with possibly contaminated tap water is quite low.
On the balance, he said, the danger of spreading crypto is much higher if people avoid washing their hands than if they do so diligently but use tap water.
Crypto, which is protected by a shell called an “oocyst” that makes the parasitic protozoa resistant to the low concentrations of disinfecting chlorine that the city adds to its drinking water, is a hardy bug but hardly an indestructible one, Keene said.
Although oocysts can survive outside a water source, or a human host, it’s highly unlikely that a sufficient number of oocysts would remain on well-washed hands to spread the infection, he said.
As for showering with tap water, Keene said a person would have to “open your mouth and swallow water” to have any risk of ingesting enough oocysts to become ill.
Runoff from rainstorms or melting snow can then wash oocyst-laden feces into a water source.
He noted too that oocysts will reproduce once they’ve gotten into your system.
WHAT WE KNOW
• Confirmed cases of cryptosporidium: 8
• City continues to recommend residents boil water (rolling boil for 1 minute) used for drinking, cooking, brushing teeth or washing dishes
• City waiting for results of water sample tests; the first batch should be available late today or Saturday
• Before this outbreak, there had been only one confirmed case of crypto infection in Baker County. That happened in 2007. That case was not linked to Baker City’s drinking water.
• Shrine All-Star Football Game still scheduled for 12:30 p.m. Saturday at Bulldog Memorial Stadium. Parade downtown at 9:30 a.m.
WHERE CAN I GET CLEAN WATER?
• La Grande has brought a water truck, with 2,000 gallons, to Baker City. And Baker City has had one of its trucks filled with La Grande water. One truck is parked near the corner of Campbell and Grove streets, near the Val’s Veggies produce stand. Bring your own container and follow the directions affixed to sandwich boards for do-it-yourself dispensing. The other truck will be parked on Madison Street near Geiser-Pollman Park. All the water is free.
• The Salvation Army has free bottled water at its Thrift Store, 2505 Broadway St. in Baker City.
Prison, jail, retirement homes grapple with crypto
By Chris Collins and Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald
Meadowbrook Place employees made an urgent run to the store to buy bottled water for the care center’s 41 residents when word of the possible cryptosporidium fouling of Baker City’s water system was announced Wednesday morning.
Then the center’s employees began boiling water for food preparation and personal use.
“We’re making sure the residents have plenty of water,” said Suzanne Miller, director.
None of the residents has come down with any illness related to cryptosporidium, she said.
Still she said she had hoped for a better response from the city.
She acknowledged that city employees no doubt had been kept busy responding to the water quality issues, but she had hoped that more effort would have been made to connect with those who serve the community’s vulnerable population of older people.
“I wish they could at least have reached out to our facility and that didn’t happen,” she said.
Settler’s Park, an assisted living facility in Baker City with 75 residents, thus far has been unscathed during the crypto outbreak.
No residents have been stricken with the infection’s symptoms, nor have any employees, said Jackie Wirth, Settler’s Park’s executive director.
Yet, until the city issued a notice Wednesday morning recommending residents boil drinking water, Settler’s Park residents were served city water on a daily basis, Wirth said.
Settler’s Park has switched to bottled water, she said.
Baker County Jail
Boiling water hasn’t been necessary at the Baker County Jail.
A 230-foot well was included in the original construction of the jail at 3410 K St. The well is just one element of the jail’s emergency contingency system, said Undersheriff Warren Thompson.
The jail’s 32 inmates are continuing to use city water for showering and flushing toilets. The well water is being hauled in for drinking, tooth brushing and other personal use. The jail also has its own sterilizing dish-washing system.
Bottled water and water coolers also are available in the building.
No illness has been detected among the inmate population, but several staff members have experienced “stomach issues,” Thompson said.
None has been confirmed as cryptosporidiosis.
Powder River Correctional Facility
The Powder River Correctional Facility is following all procedures recommended for the general public, including boiling water for inmate consumption, serving bottled water and washing all dishes in boiled water.
“We’re doing everything everybody else is doing,” said Lisa Jaensch, the prison’s public information officer.
There has been an increase in the number of inmates experiencing gastrointestinal upsets, she said, but again, none has been confirmed as being related to cryptosporidium exposure.
“We were kind of wondering ‘what’s going on?’ It made sense when we read the newspaper,” Jaensch said.
The 338-person minimum security prison is much like a “mini-city,” she said.
“We’re managing it and doing the best we can.”
Baker County Fair
Preparations are under way for the Baker County Fair, with 4-H and FFA animals scheduled to arrive on the grounds Wednesday.
Extension agent Janice Cowan said the Morrison family has volunteered to provide a 300-gallon water tank for use in dispensing uncontaminated water to the small animals at the fair.
Bottled water will be available for people and water will be boiled for food preparation as necessary and all other recommendations will be followed.
Fair participants who are concerned about their large animals could pack water for them, but it’s not necessary, said Dr. Mark Berthelson of the Animal Clinic.
Most of the animals routinely drink from ditches and ponds, he said.
“A big chunk of them probably already have been exposed to crypto,” Berthelson added. “It’s not that unusual to see that bug running around in beef cattle.”
And, for that matter, market animals won’t have long to worry about cryptosporidium after the fair ends.
“Most are going to heaven,” Berthelsen said. “There’s no chance of anything showing up before they go to heaven.”
Restaurants, stores deal with water issues
By Terri Harber
Events related to Saturday afternoon’s East-West Shrine game began Thursday and continue today.
The community is preparing for what is one of the most important annual events in Baker City each summer. People also remain concerned about the local outbreak of cryptosporidiosis reported by officials on Wednesday.
Results from water testing are expected soon but people are being asked to boil water before drinking, cooking, washing dishes and brushing their teeth. The other option is to use bottled water for these purposes.
When water quality is in question, many businesses are required to take additional precautions — especially eateries, retail food sellers and motels.
“Everybody is working as hard as they can to resolve the situation,” said Timothy Bishop, Baker County tourism director. “The health and safety of guests is of the utmost importance.”
The area restaurant inspector arrived just a few hours after the warning went out about city water consumption. Baker County contracts with Malheur County Environmental Health for the service and has done so since 1992.
Staff has been visiting local businesses to determine whether these establishments can sufficiently carry out the additional tasks required to keep from potentially making customers ill.
Grocery stores, which had to dispose of produce that had been sprayed with city water, are inspected by the state Department of Agriculture.
As of Thursday afternoon, some local restaurants remained closed. Even more were shut down Wednesday, however, because of confusion about what to do.
Many sit-down restaurants aren’t offering the customary glasses of water or scooping ice into beverages — if both originated from their taps. Soda machines that use local water aren’t being operated, either. They must be thoroughly cleaned before running again.
Types of equipment used at each business can vary. Some can adapt to the increased workload better than others, said Craig Geddes, director of Malheur’s environmental health department.
Kurt Miller, owner of Baker Truck Corral, is highly concerned about serving coffee. The 24-hour restaurant with a minimarket and other amenities serves travelers and truck drivers year-round.
Some businesses that specialize in coffee and baked goods use boiled water already, but the Truck Corral doesn’t. Miller said his employees were going to try serving campfire coffee.
Miller explained how the process works but left out the quantities of ingredients: Boil water and add ground coffee. Let the brew steep for a while and then add a small amount of cold water (boiled, of course, then cooled), to tamp down the grounds — this allows for easier pouring.
The restaurant also does a large amount of catering so the recommendation by the inspector that disposable dishes and flatware be used wouldn’t require additional shopping.
Bart Combs, the general manager of the Best Western Sunridge Inn, said the motel was booked “solid” for the Shrine Game. Guests already were arriving Thursday.
A warning about local water was prominently displayed at the check-in counter and copies of the city’s announcement about crypto concerns were in a neat stack nearby.
“It’s been a hassle but we’re doing what we need to do,” Combs said.
The Sunridge is using bottled water. There are advisories about not consuming ice but some is available if guests need it inside their coolers for sealed drinks and other items, for example.
The Sunridge also has a restaurant and bar.
The Cheerleaders Pizza Party related to the game will be at Paizano’s Pizza on Friday night. Hungry football fans usually crowd the restaurant after the game as well.
There won’t be iced drinks or salads because of the extra preparation required, said owner Kina Allen.
She doesn’t use bagged, pre-washed greens because of the additives used to keep them looking fresh inside the packaging, she said.
Customers who aren’t interested in drinking bottled sodas, juice or beer can have free bottled water with their meals. Charging people for water doesn’t seem right.
“I feel weird about that,” she said.
Allen had already traveled to Boise and brought back a full pallet of single-serving bottles of water. It’s not likely they’ll run out of it soon, she said.
Allen’s also concerned about making a good impression on people visiting the community. Not just for the sake of her own business, but for the sake of the entire community.
“We don’t want people to think we constantly have trouble,” Allen said. “This is all very unusual.”