E. coli outbreak comes to Alaska, first confirmed cases are Nome inmates

All eight inmates contracted a specific strain of the bacteria through eating romaine lettuce served at AMCC. (Public domain photo, via Pixabay)

Alaska has reported its first cases of a strain of E. coli bacteria related to a national outbreak going on this month. Statewide, all eight confirmed cases are inmates currently residing in Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center (AMCC).

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According to a press release from the State, the investigation of the outbreak is ongoing. But as of yesterday, no additional E. coli cases have been reported by AMCC or elsewhere in Alaska.

Louisa Castrodale is one of the epidemiologists with the infectious disease program at the state section of epidemiology under the Department of Health and Social Services. She confirms that all eight inmates contracted a specific strain of the bacteria through eating romaine lettuce served at AMCC.

“What we’re talking about here is a type of E. coli, a shiga-toxin-producing E. coli, and so it can be pretty damaging to people,” Castrodale said. “It can cause some severe illness, vomiting, diarrhea, and bloody diarrhea. So generally, when we think about E. coli O157 infections, it’s a gastrointestinal infection.”

State and national entities are investigating more than 50 E. coli cases across 16 states. Castrodale says by collaborating with those entities, they have determined that the infectious lettuce came from Yuma, Arizona, but don’t know which specific farm.

“We also work very closely — because there is a food product suspected here to be the cause — with our partners in Food Safety,” Castrodale said. “So the Department of Environmental Conservation, they’re working with FDA and the CDC to help figure out: where did this lettuce come from? What farm, can they trace it back? How far can they trace it back? And to sort of look at all the distribution loops to see why certain states are seeing it and certain venues.”

Anvil Mountain Correctional Center. (Photo by Margaret DeMaioribus/ KNOM)

In order to control the outbreak within AMCC, a spokesperson with the Department of Corrections (DOC) says their staff and medical support implemented rigorous hygiene requirements earlier this month, like more frequent hand-scrubbing.

“Outbreaks like this in a prison setting can be a little stressful, because everybody lives so close together; everybody interacts so closely all the time,” Castrodale said. “So we really do have really good medical staff, and really good staff at Anvil, because they had to go into overdrive to make sure that this incident was contained. That meant just a really good scrubbing of everything in the facility.”

Megan Edge is the public information officer with DOC. She says lettuce was taken off the menu temporarily, but AMCC will start serving the leafy green vegetable from another grower, to avoid further infections.

“And we aren’t just going to use the product that we have from Arizona; we’re going to follow the CDC’s recommendations ourselves and just not risk it,” Edge said. “We are still looking at the logistics of where we will continue to get products from, but there are other options outside of Arizona. And we do have a correctional farm out in Mat-Su that we’re getting ready to head into growing season, and that’s always a huge relief for us, because we can take a lot of products that we are growing ourselves and use them at our facilities.”

According to Edge, none of the eight patients with confirmed E. coli cases were hospitalized, and all of them are back within the general population of 117 residing at AMCC.

The Department of Health and Social Services will provide more updates on the investigation when it is available. For now, the Center for Disease Control recommends Alaskans avoid eating any romaine lettuce unless you can verify it is not from Yuma, Arizona.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.