By Terri Harber
Thursday was a lovely day for scat collecting.
State and federal officials traveled to Elk Creek to gather samples of animal droppings from elk, goat, coyote and bovine. The samples are an important part of their research about how cryptosporidium - a waterborne parasite - entered Baker City's water supply and sickened a large number of people here.
There had been a water boil order in effect beginning Aug. 3, once it was determined that consuming municipal water was the common act preceding the illness.
State officials rescinded the boil order on Tuesday afternoon based on a final round of water samples that didn't detect any noticeable crypto.
An initial water advisory had been issued July 31 and elevated to an order to boil water just days later, after tests indicated the presence of the parasite.
The officials also took some water samples from a small spring that feeds into Elk Creek, said Michelle Owen, the city's public works director.
Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also might try to genotype the crypto found in Elk Creek, Owen said.
That information might help prevent future outbreaks though it's only a viable test when very fresh scat is available for testing.
Genotyping determines differences in the genetic makeup of an organism by examining its DNA. The information is meant to assist in assessing health risks and as a watershed management tool, according to the School of Public Health at the University of Texas.
Elk Creek is several miles southwest of the city. It's the body of water where a 10-liter sample taken Aug. 4 measured 913 oocysts.
The creek isn't normally used by the city at this time of year and was taken out of service after the results came through with a substantial crypto measure.
It takes at least 10 oocysts to make some people ill from cryptosporidiosis. Other sites where crypto was detected as a result of tests done since July 31 measured just one, two or three oocysts.
Oocyst-detecting tests taken during 2010 and 2011 were comparable to the lower levels measured in these recent samples.
There were no reports of illness during that time span, and these tests were used by the state to determine what type of treatment the city should add to boost its current treatment of chlorination.
The city has been designing an ultraviolet light treatment plant that would be fully operational by October 2016.
State and federal officials will give this plan another look because of the outbreak.
The city will take samples twice a week from a combined raw water source point twice a week to watch for any potential return of crypto. These samples are from water not chlorinated.
The first of these samples was taken Wednesday. The testing could go on until the cause is found and eliminated, or until the city provides a second method of treatment on its water before it reaches users' taps.
Cost for a year of these tests will be $52,000, Owen said.
Baker City is one of four Oregon communities so far allowed to provide users with unfiltered water. The others are Bend, Portland and Reedsport.
Illness surveying concluded
Surveyors also concluded home visits to collect anecdotal information about illnesses possibly linked to crypto.
There were eight local people highly involved with this survey effort. All are fire or police department volunteers and worked under the supervision of state health officials.
"By and large, most people were trying to be helpful," said Alan Blair, the volunteer coordinator for the city's fire department and one of the surveyors.
They asked questions but also handed out information sheets about crypto and this local event.
It was also an opportunity to add more residents into the county wide emergency notification system, Blair said.
He anticipates that the officials will use the data collected for significant study about the outbreak and related events.
What's learned as a result of what happened here in Baker City will assist local officials to respond effectively to similar future crises and, possibly, even stop another situation of this type from occurring.
Analysis about what transpired also could be applied during future outbreaks in other communities. Examining responses and effectiveness of spreading information might ensure fewer people are infected if another outbreak of crypto or giardia happens, Blair said.
He was echoing what Emilio DeBess, the state public health veterinarian, told the Baker County commissioners on Wednesday.
Looking back at how city and county government reacted to this crisis, for example, would help both entities better know "how to best educate and inform people," DeBess said.
"It was a good experience; not a fun experience," Blair said of the survey taking. "It was five days of talking to people about poop."
Early indications point to there having been hundreds or even a thousand people ill from ingesting crypto contained in the city's water supply.
There have been just 23 confirmed cases, however.
Health officials still recommend individuals with compromised immune systems - such as those receiving cancer treatment or people with HIV, as well as infants - obtain the approval of their health-care professional before consuming city tap water.
Though crypto is no longer detected in the city's water, there is a risk that the infection could be passed from person to person.
Crypto can be passed by putting anything in one's mouth that has been in contact with the feces of an infected person or animal. And it's an infection that can linger for up to two weeks after symptoms go away.
Frequent and thorough handwashing with soap and water is important - especially after changing diapers, using the toilet, before eating or preparing food, before and after tending to someone ill with diarrhea and after handling animal waste.
Stay out of swimming pools and hot tubs - especially if you have had diarrhea within the past two weeks. Keep children out of pools and recreational tubs if they've had diarrhea within that same amount of time.
Wash raw fruits and vegetables to remove potential crypto. And practice safer sex by using condoms and other barrier-style products.
Symptoms of crypto appear two to 10 days after a person becomes infected. The average amount of time between exposure and signs of illness is seven days. People who don't exhibit symptoms still can infect others.