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Lehi officials probe E. coli outbreak, grill health department for locations

Aug 23, 2023, 3:59 PM | Updated: Aug 24, 2023, 5:15 am

LEHI, Utah —As Lehi officials struggled to pinpoint the cause of an E. coli outbreak that contaminated the city’s pressurized irrigation system, the mayor and city council grilled health department administrators at a fact-finding meeting Tuesday night as to why there wasn’t greater transparency and information sharing to help resolve the issue.

“I guess the question is why is that so difficult?” Mayor Mark Johnson asked at one point during the meeting to health officials. “We have a health issue. We should be working together, and I feel like we’re not.”

Unraveling the E. coli contamination source in Lehi, Utah

Johnson questioned why the Utah County Health Department and Utah Department of Health couldn’t provide more specific location information related to confirmed positive cases in order to help pinpoint the source of the contamination.

Health officials pointed to HIPAA medical privacy rules and issues divulging specific patient addresses.

“We are not on the attack here,” the mayor said. “Our goal here is to come up with a working solution that we can communicate information back and forth that actually helps us solve this problem.”

Earlier Tuesday, Lehi City announced it had created a treatment plan for the pressurized irrigation system that involved “shock” treating two reservoirs with the goal of lowering the levels of bacteria.

Officials also urged residents not to drink pressurized irrigation water, play in it, use it for bounce houses and slip-n-slides and also recommended people not eat uncooked produce from their personal gardens.

City workers said Tuesday night they were first alerted about the contamination and its connection to pressurized irrigation on Aug. 2.

Confirmed E. coli cases recently rose to 12  and health officials at the meeting Tuesday evening estimated there were probably far more cases in the community that had not come to their attention.

“When we find cases of E. coli O157, these are kids who are sick enough to go to the doctor and to have a stool sample collected and tested,” Utah Department of Health infectious diseases program manager Cindy Burnett told the mayor and council. “We know there are a lot of other people who were probably sick and didn’t get tested, so we can estimate there’s probably been at least 150 to 200 cases of E. coli if we’ve had this many hospitalized, so it’s a pretty widespread problem.”

The challenge of identifying the E. coil contamination source

Jason Garrett, division director for environmental health at the Utah County Health Department, said identifying the cause or source of the E. coli contamination was going to be key.

“If we could just find it—I know I’m asking the impossible because I’m sure you’ve looked—but finding the source is the answer,” he said.

City officials said they were awaiting sample results in the days to come to indicate whether the treatment at the two reservoirs was in fact making a difference.

“It is a little bit of a shock to me that this strain—that we’ve never dealt with before—is here and we are dealing with it now,” said Matt Dalton, the operations supervisor for Lehi’s water department.

In an interview with KSL TV on Wednesday, Dalton said it would be difficult to pinpoint the source.

“We don’t know where it came from and we’re aggressively working to try to remedy the situation by treatment and sampling and continued monitoring,” he said. “Lehi City receives so much surface water from so many different sources that finding that source would be extremely difficult.”

Dalton said the pressurized irrigation system cannot be shut off because it’s the same water that’s supplied to the city’s fire hydrants.

“The CDC has advised that it’s not safe to have pets and children out on the lawn after it’s been watered,” he said. “They’ve recommended to not use the pressurized irrigation at all.”

The mayor acknowledged crews basically had to make an “educated guess” about which reservoirs to treat because of the lack of specific location information from health departments.

“When (an official) told me he can’t release any information within an area of three zip codes, that just wasn’t helpful at all in this situation,” Johnson said. “Our primary goal was to figure out a way to curb the spread of this disease and we needed to put something into those ponds to help kill that bacteria.”

Johnson said the city itself “failed” when it came to notifying residents about the potential hazards.

“Admittedly I was pretty shocked where we put out the message at the first of the month and then all of a sudden we had more kids playing in it,” Johnson said. “We failed, I think, of notifying our citizens of what to do and what not to do and we need to work on that, we need to figure out a better way. I don’t know how we do that unless we send out mailers or something to everybody because it was on Everbridge. We did everything that we typically understand how to notify people, but you know what? I’m going to say something. We failed because we had citizens who continued to let their kids play and get exposed to the water.”

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Lehi officials probe E. coli outbreak, grill health department for locations