Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Elizabeth G. Cook
Salisbury Post
CHINA GROVE ó Health officials have yet to pinpoint the source of the E. coli that appears to have made at least nine people sick after eating at Captain’s Galley last week.
One or two of those people are still in the hospital, according to Leonard Wood, director of the Rowan County Health Department.
“We haven’t found anything that’s like a smoking gun,” Wood said Friday afternoon. “We don’t know what specifically is causing the problem and may never know.”
But the investigation is far from over.
Wood said he had received calls about a couple more “highly suspicious” cases Friday, and wouldn’t know until next week if lab cultures sent to state labs confirm E. coli in all of the initial cases.
Health officials interviewed Captain’s Galley employees extensively on Thursday.
“They’ve been very cooperative,” Wood said.
Owner John Kazakos of Statesville, who owns or has owned other seafood restaurants in Statesville and Hickory, issued a statement by fax Friday.
“Captain’s Galley of China Grove has been open for 20 years and is a family-oriented restaurant that values its loyal customers,” he said. “Our focus is to provide exceptional food and service in a clean environment. We remain committed to provide our customers with quality food and service.
“We are aware of the recent reports. We have great respect for the officials with the Health Department and will continue to cooperate in any investigation.”
Records at the county’s Environmental Health Department show the restaurant has consistently received a grade of A following inspections.
Wood said health department employees next would interview asymptomatic cases ó people who were at the restaurant in the same period (May 25-June 1) to see if any food products could be eliminated from the list of possible E. coli carriers.
“We can’t rule out a sick employee,” Wood said.
The investigation started Tuesday after an infection control nurse at NorthEast Medical Center called the Health Department to report two groups of two people ó possibly couples ó who had come in with E. coli symptoms.
Health officials called those people or their relatives to find out where and what they had eaten recently.
Wood says E. coli generally has a two- to seven-day incubation period. If a person gets sick the evening or day after eating at a restaurant, Wood said, that person probably does not have E. coli.
A similar call from Rowan Regional Medical Center also reported a couple of people with E. coli symptoms.
The common denominator among all the cases was the Captain’s Galley, Wood said.
“I think the public health system really worked in this case,” he said.
The E. coli bacterium is found in animal feces and can cause illness when people consume water or food that has come in contact with it. If people touch contaminated material, they can transfer the bacteria from their own hands to their mouths. E. coli can also be spread from one person to another.
Symptoms include diarrhea, stomach pain or vomiting. Diarrhea may be bloody and infectious and can be severe, especially in young children and the elderly. The state communicable disease branch recommends that individuals experiencing these symptoms contact their medical provider for appropriate treatment.
Most outbreaks in the U.S. have been associated with ground beef, unpasteurized milk, unpasteurized apple cider and other raw or undercooked food products.
People can also get E. coli from direct contact with farm animals or their feces. A 2004 outbreak that infected 38 people in North Carolina was traced back to a petting zoo at the State Fair.
A 2001 outbreak in Robeson County that involved more than 200 cases stemmed from butter made for a school fair using unpasteurized milk.
Secondary infections ó getting the illness from someone else who is or has been ill óare also a concern. Health officials recommend thorough hand-washing, particularly after using the restroom, after changing diapers and before preparing food, eating or drinking.