Health officials have begun investigating an E. coli outbreak that has closed 43 Chipotle restaurants in Washington and Oregon. Officials say they expect the case total to continue to rise.
As of last Friday, three people in the Portland, Oregon area and 19 people in western Washington had become sick from E. coli, the Associated Press (AP) reports. Seventeen of those who became ill had eaten at a Chipotle restaurant in recent weeks. Eight people have been hospitalized but, to date, no deaths have been reported.
Medical epidemiologist Marissa D’Angeli, with the Washington State Department of Health, said more cases will likely be confirmed as people with intestinal symptoms become aware of the outbreak and see a doctor. “We actually would expect there might be a jump in cases on Monday,” D’Angeli said. Symptoms of infection have been reported in Clackamas and Washington counties in Oregon, and Clark, King, Skagit and Cowlitz counties in Washington, the AP reports.
Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria live in the intestines of people and animals. Most E. coli strains are harmless and play an important role in a healthy human intestinal tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But some E. coli are pathogenic and can cause illness, either diarrhea or illness outside of the intestinal tract.
The E. coli strains that cause illness can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or persons. Symptoms of the illness vary but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. If there is fever, it usually is not very high (less than 101˚F). Most people recover within 5–7 days, but the infection can be severe or even life-threatening and some people develop kidney and other complications. Symptoms usually emerge three to four days after exposure.
D’Angeli said anyone who has been sick with intestinal symptoms and has eaten at Chipotle since mid-October should see a doctor and be tested. Anyone who has bloody diarrhea should see a doctor whether they have eaten at Chipotle or not.
D’Angeli said the E. coli strain involved in the outbreak may have come from a fresh food product delivered to Chipotle restaurants and other places, according to the AP. Every ill person who comes forward provides clues that could help identify the source of the infection, she said. Investigators will talk to everyone diagnosed with E. coli and find out what they ate and where. State labs in Washington and Oregon will examine samples from sick people. Food from the restaurants will be tested at a Food and Drug Administration laboratory to see if bacteria from the food matches the human cases.
D’Angeli said Chipotle has been cooperative and has voluntarily shut down all of its restaurants in the two states. The reopening of the 43 closed Chipotle restaurants in Oregon and Washington will depend on the investigation, company spokesman Chris Arnold said. The company has no plans to close restaurants in other states because there is no evidence of a link to other locations, the AP reports.