BURRILLVILLE – The state Department of Health is expected to allow the reopening of Spring Lake Beach today while continuing to monitor a total of 92 cases of gastrointestinal illness believed to be caused by a person ill with diarrhea while swimming at the beach on July 4.
Dr. Michael Fine, director of the Department of Health, detailed the possibility that a single case of Shigella Sonnei bacteria caused gastrointestinal illness spreading to other swimmers at the popular public beach, and then provided an update on the illnesses during a press conference at the department’s Cannon Building headquarters Tuesday afternoon.
Fine noted that tests for potential bacterial contamination of drinking water and food concessions at Spring Lake Beach had all turned up negative and also indicated that water quality testing at the beach showed no sign of bacteria contamination from samples taken both Sunday and Monday.
The department had begun an investigation into the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness on Saturday night, July 6, Fine said.
“To date, we’ve identified 92 illnesses with 16 people hospitalized with bloody diarrhea; stool specimens from 19 of those 92 patients are positive for Shigella Sonni — a bacteria that is associated with gastro intestinal illnesses,” Fine said.
“The common factor in all of the ill people is swimming at the Spring Lake Beach in Burrillville on July 4,” he added.
Fine said 80 percent of those falling ill with fever, diarrhea and stomach cramps are children under 18. Children hospitalized at Hasbro Children’s Hospital after coming down with the illness “are responding well,” Fine said. There were no severe illnesses reported in adults believed to have contracted Shigella at the beach, according to Fine.
The state conducted testing of the drinking water at Spring Lake Beach and also performed inspections of the food concessions after closing Spring Lake on Sunday. Fine said the test results showed no concerns related to food concessions or the beach facility’s drinking water supply.
The beach water tests conducted on July 1 were also negative for fecal coliform or E. coli bacterial contamination, indictors of potential gastrointestinal illness risks, according to Fine.
The large number of people using Spring Lake Beach on July 4, an estimated 2,000 people in all, may have contributed to the potential for someone ill with the bacteria contaminating the waters that day and spreading the illness to others, according to Fine.
“We believe the Shigella came from fecal contamination that occurred on July 4,” Fine said.
The possibility also led Fine to recommend that parents of diapered children using swimming areas should always keep the diapers on, even when they wear bathing suits. Some parents may have taken off their children’s diapers before they entered the water, according to Fine.
An estimated 1,600 people used the beach on July 5, and another 1,800 on July 6, well above the beach’s average of 700 people per day.
Given the number of people using the beach at those times, Fine said, it can expected that the cases will increase due to the incubation period of one to three days. The fact that bacteria does not survive well outside the body or in warm temperatures should limit the number of potential future cases, he added.
After identifying Shigella as the cause, Fine said the department on Tuesday issued “an advisory to health care providers on how to treat Shigella.”
Most people infected with Shigella develop diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps, and the diarrhea is often bloody,’ Fine said. “Most infections of Shigella are self-limiting and most people recover in 48 to 72 hours,” he said. Mild cases may not need antibiotic therapy. Treatment for most people is the intake of lots of fluids.
“Shigella is highly contagious from person to person via what’s called the oral-fecal route. People who are sick should wash their hands often and avoid food handling in the family and work environment,” Fine said.
“People with active diarrhea should stay out of school, daycare, camp, work and community activities until the diarrhea is completely gone,” he said. “Anyone who swam at Spring Lake and is experiencing diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever or vomiting should see his or her doctor. People who are child care workers, food handlers and health care workers should have two negative stool cultures, 24 hours apart, before being allowed to return to work,” Fine said.
The decision to allow the reopening of Spring Lake Beach on Wednesday was made after water tests from Sunday and Monday showed no evidence of fecal coliform contamination.
“All of the people who were sick that we interviewed were in the water on the Fourth of July and we have had no illnesses reported from people who were in the water after that date,” he said.
The state officials participating in the session indicated none of the illnesses resulting in hospitalizations was of a life-threatening nature.
Anyone feeling ill with the symptoms of Shigella bacteria-related illness should see their personal physician, the state officials advised.