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After E. coli outbreak, Lynden fair focuses on hand washing

The Northwest Washington Fair wants people to wash their hands this year to combat E. coli and other bacteria that could sicken them.

The focus on clean hands is in response to the E. coli outbreak that occurred during the Milk Makers Fest in April. A total of 25 people, most of them young children, were sickened.

“The best way to stay healthy and germ-free is to wash your hands,” said Jim Baron, manager of the Northwest Washington Fair.

Public health investigators traced the strain of E. coli that caused the outbreak to the north end of the dairy barn, where the Milk Makers Fest was held, at the fairgrounds in Lynden.

The six-day fair opens Monday, Aug. 17, and its officials are assuring people that it’s safe for them and their families to go.

Here are the steps they’ve taken, in cooperation with the Whatcom County Health Department, to “make this the safest and the healthiest fair of any of its kind,” Baron said.

About 200,000 people are expected to attend.

What’s the big deal about washing hands?

E. coli are bacteria that normally live in the intestines of people and animals. Most are harmless, but some cause illness.

The main sources for E. coli are contaminated food, water and surfaces, along with contact with livestock. People become infected when they swallow minute amounts of feces, usually not visible to the naked eye.

“Animals carry pathogens. That’s just the way it is,” said Tom Kunesh, environmental health supervisor for the Whatcom County Health Department, during a fair staff training on Wednesday, Aug. 12. “Germs are going to hitchhike on our hands.”

A speck of dust on a rail has enough E. coli in it to make you sick if you don’t wash your hands before eating or otherwise put your fingers in your mouth, Kunesh warned.

“The message isn’t for people to avoid the animals, it’s to make sure they wash their hands when coming into contact with animals,” Baron said.

How is the fair going to get visitors and exhibitors to wash their hands?

It’s going to do so by:

▪ Doubling the number of hand-washing stations, which will have soap and water, throughout the fairgrounds to 24.

“Ultimately, we can’t force people to wash their hands,” Baron said, adding the fair can give them ample access to hand-washing.

▪ Putting what it’s calling hand-washing ambassadors at some stations to talk to people about healthy hygiene and to encourage them to wash their hands. There will be four such ambassadors. They will be stationed in places that include the dairy barn and the Henry Jansen Ag Center.

▪ Enticing children by making a game of it and offering prizes.

▪ Putting up more signs to remind people to wash their hands and reaching them through social media and news stories.

▪ Telling people, including the animal exhibitors, to avoid eating in the barns. That could be particularly challenging for the exhibitors because they spend so much time with their animals in the barns during the fair.

“We want to avoid that hand-to-mouth contact when in an animal exhibit area,” Kunesh said, adding people should wash their hands immediately after leaving barns and then, for good measure, again before eating.

▪ Reminding people to leave their fingers out of their mouth while in animal exhibit areas. That also means avoiding things like putting on lip balm while there, biting nails, sticking a pacifier in your child’s mouth or allowing children to suck their thumbs. In short, Kunesh said: “No hands in mouth while in the barns.”

Kunesh said people also should leave their strollers outside animal areas to avoid possibly spreading E. coli from the wheels to their car or home.

If they don’t, people can wash the wheels at gates 1 and 5.

Will the dairy barn be used during the fair?

Yes, to exhibit dairy animals — primarily cows and young livestock like heifers.

Was the dairy barn cleaned after the outbreak?

Yes. But keep in mind that it’s a barn.

“You can’t sterilize a barn,” Greg Stern, Whatcom County health officer, said.

“It’s a barn and it’s huge. It’s expected to be contaminated. You cannot have a barn environment and expect it to be free of microbial contamination,” Kunesh added.

People leaving the dairy barn will be reminded to soap up.

“You won’t be able to walk out of the dairy barn without seeing a hand-washing station,” Baron said.

Will the E. coli outbreak scare off fair-goers?

“There’s no indication that it’s going to,” Baron said, adding that advance ticket sales were up over previous years.

He believes people recognized officials’ efforts to make the fair safe.

And that includes the central message fair-goers and others can expect to hear as they look at animals, enjoy the carnival, chow down on fair food, and otherwise take part in the county’s agricultural heritage.

“Hand-washing is protective,” Kunesh said, “and it’s an important habit to instill in everybody, children and adults both.”

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com.

Northwest Washington Fair

When: Monday, Aug. 17, to Saturday, Aug. 22.

Where: 1775 Front St., Lynden.

Cost: Gate admission is $12 for adults; $10 for ages 62 and older; $7 for ages 6-12; free for children 5 and younger.

Details: Call 877-699-FAIR (3247) or nwwafair.com.

Ride the bus

Whatcom Transportation Authority will provide free rides to the fairgrounds Sunday, Aug. 16, through Saturday, Aug. 22.

The fair opens Monday, Aug. 17.

WTA is also offering a special 10 p.m. bus departing at a stop across the street from the fairgrounds between Bank of the Pacific and Umpqua Bank. The bus will stop at the Cordata station and the downtown station in Bellingham. For details on WTA service, call 360-676-RIDE (7433) or see ridewta.com/route_26.

Wash your hands

In case you need a refresher, here’s what the Northwest Washington Fair and the Whatcom County Health Department say you need to do to wash your hands properly:

▪ Use soap and hot or cold running water.

▪ Rub your hands together to lather up the soap. Be sure to lather the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.

▪ Wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds. Hum “Happy Birthday” from start to finish twice if you need a timer.

▪ Rinse your hands well under running water.

▪ Dry your hands using a clean towel or air-dry them.

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