By Jean Cole
When dozens of people began to roll into Athens-Limestone Hospital over the weekend complaining of diarrhea, vomiting, cramps and fever, a stomach bug was the first suspect, an official said.
By Monday morning, employees in Athens and Limestone County were phoning in sick with the aforementioned symptoms. (The News Courier had 10 of 17 employees out.)
When the stream of afflicted continued unabated into the hospital Monday, officials had already become suspicious that the malady was something other than a seasonal bug.
By Monday afternoon, the hospital had confirmed six cases of salmonella bacteria infection using stool specimens, said Kelli Powers, hospital chief executive officer.
Some of those exhibiting symptoms suspected they might have contracted the illness Friday at the annual bean day dinner hosted by the Foundation on Aging at the First Baptist Church Family Life Center in Athens. However, Health Department officials have not yet determined the source of the bacteria. They are investigating and planning to test food leftover from the event, an official said.
Jackie Jackson, president of the Foundation on Aging, could not be reached for comment on the matter Monday.
Officials estimated there were dozens and dozens infected by the bacterium. The hospital may have a more solid estimate today.
“We were seeing people Saturday and Sunday, and we are so bombarded today,” Powers said Monday afternoon. “We have 24 people in the ER now and some have been waiting for more than an hour.”
None of the six confirmed cases required hospitalization, she said. Most were given anti-diarrhea medicine and anti-nausea medicine, and some were given intravenous fluids for dehydration, Powers said.
Aside from that, most victims will simply have to let the bacteria take its course, which takes five to seven days, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The Alabama Department of Public Health’s Epidemiology Division was notified of the illnesses and is investigating, according to Crystal Page, a member of the epidemiology division’s field surveillance staff and based in Morgan County. She could not comment on the probable source of the infection.
Limestone County Health Department environmentalist Ken Holsclaw said an epidemiology nurse was calling around Monday and had received several calls from doctors.
“Doctors believe the common location was the bean day,” he said. “Several people got some plates to send off for testing.”
Holsclaw said the nurse will telephone victims and take down symptoms and which foods they consumed.
“She can narrow it down pretty good from there,” he said. “Different symptoms help lead her to what it could be based on when they got sick versus when they ate. If she believes it came from bean day, then she would ask further questions and have any leftovers kept cold and sent to the lab in Montgomery.”
Powers said health officials would probably not only examine the food cooked at bean day — which included ham and beans, onion, slaw, cornbread and desserts — but also the pots in which the food was cooked.