Louisiana's Department of Health officials believe a mass outbreak of salmonella poisoning in Caldwell Parish that sickened hundreds and is suspected in one death can be traced to a jambalaya fundraiser for a softball team.
Local and state authorities are trying to determine if the death of Duane Reitzell, 56, is linked to the food poisoning.
As of Thursday, 49 cases of a gastrointestinal illness were confirmed with 31 people hospitalized, the Department of Health reported. The ages of those with a confirmed illness range from 15 to 70.
State officials also reported Thursday samples taken from five people have tested positive for salmonella.
An estimated 380 people in the United States die from salmonella poisoning each year, while 19,000 are hospitalized.
More than 300 people were served the jambalaya on Monday and state health officials anticipate additional reports in the coming days. Symptoms usually appear within six to 72 hours of exposure but can take up to one week.
The department encourages anyone who bought food from the fundraiser to throw it away, including side items that may have come into contact with the jambalaya.
Sheriff Clay Bennett said he and other workers in his office fell ill Tuesday afternoon after eating the jambalaya.
Richard Meredith, mayor of Columbia, said the outbreak is unprecedented for his town.
"It's bizarre," Meredith said. "I've never seen anything like it. It's affected a lot of people, maybe a couple of hundred from my best estimation. I think they are trying to narrow it down — the when, what, where and why — I'm not sure to what conclusion."
Meredith said local businesses remain open, but many are short-staffed because of the outbreak.
Mayor's court is closed for Friday and rescheduled for Dec. 15. Caldwell Parish District Court remains open.
“Everybody is trying to figure out what’s going on," said Drew Keahey, a Caldwell Parish farmer and president of the Tensas Basin Levee District board. "No bigger than we are, when there are 200 people in the hospital, everybody knows somebody who is sick."
Keahey, a director of Homeland Bank, said more than 10 people left the bank Tuesday with sickness.
The Department of Health has personnel on the ground in Caldwell Parish investigating the outbreak. They are interviewing those that are ill, collecting samples and providing education. Sanitarians are also interviewing food handlers and investigating where the food was prepared and purchased or donated.
Caldwell Parish Superintendent of Schools John Gullatt said his office is closely monitoring the outbreak.
Gullatt said he was told by Department of Health assistant Secretary Dr. Parham Jaberi the risk of transmission from person-to-person through usual contact is extremely low and school closure isn't recommended.
"The Caldwell Parish School System can confirm that none of the food was prepared in any of the school cafeteria facilities," Gullatt's statement continued.
Dr. David Holcombe, public health medical director for the Alexandria area, said food-related outbreaks aren't uncommon.
"It's especially common in big social organizations where they prepare lots of food for lots of people," Holcombe said.
Holcolmbe said with the holidays approaching, food-based illnesses can increase. It's important for people to remember not to cross-contaminate surfaces, especially with raw meats. He also advised refrigerating food properly and cooking it thoroughly.
During an investigation, stool samples are traditionally be used to isolate the organism responsible for a given illness.
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