32 cases of E. coli now linked to Lynden dairy event

The number of people sickened in an E. coli outbreak linked to the Milk Makers Fest has jumped to 32, the Whatcom County Health Department reported Thursday, April 30.

Four were hospitalized, said Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer.

About 1,325 Whatcom County first-graders, plus the teachers and parents who accompanied them, went to the event April 21-23 at the Northwest Washington Fair & Event Center in Lynden. The 22nd annual event was sponsored by the Whatcom County Dairy Women.

In addition to the investigation, the health department will see if there are ways to improve safety at such events.

“We want to work with them to improve safety and still have people engaging with these educational activities and learning more about farming,” Stern said. “We want people to experience it safely, and so does the agriculture industry.”

The event introduced young students to farming. It also gave them a chance to pet farm animals, including small horses, sheep, rabbits, chickens and a calf. There also was a hay maze and scavenger hunt.

The health department is looking for the cause of the outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli.

Most of those reported ill were first-graders. Some adults and older children who were at the event also became sickened, according to the health department.

Of the 32 cases traced to the festival:

• 17 have been confirmed by the state’s public health lab or tested positive at local labs — or were people with E. coli symptoms who had been in close contact with someone in the first two groups.

• 15 additional people had been at the festival and were sick but lab results, some of which were pending, weren’t available yet.

The health department has been interviewing the sick students and their parents to find out whether there was a common food or water source or activity, such as the petting zoo or other contact with livestock. Students from the Bellingham, Blaine, Ferndale, Lynden and Nooksack school districts attended.

Symptoms of the bacterial illness include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea that is often bloody, and vomiting. Illness occurs up to eight days after people are infected, which happens when they swallow minute amounts of feces, usually not visible to the naked eye.

The main sources for E. coli are contaminated food, water and surfaces, along with contact with livestock.

It is common for E. coli to be spread to others living in the same household.

The Whatcom County Dairy Women said it’s working closely with the health department to identify the source of the outbreak, with members adding that their thoughts and prayers were continuing for those who had become sick.

As for the event, the children there were given pasteurized chocolate milk and they brought sack lunches from home.

The Milk Makers Fest had places for people to clean their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer. Volunteers and parents manned them, according to the Whatcom County Dairy Women.

The group said all the children and adults who attended were required to wash their hands with soap and water at the exit/entry to the dairy barn before they received their chocolate milk.

There also were three hand-sanitation stations at the entrance and exit of the trailer for the petting zoo and hay maze, the group said.

Health officials are reminding people that they should wash their hands carefully with soap and running water, especially after using the bathroom and before preparing food for eating.

If soap and water aren’t available, people can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers to reduce the number of germs in some instances. But they aren’t a substitute for hand-washing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.