The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) simultaneously announced two mystery E. coli O157:H7 outbreaks today that have sickened a total of 44 people. One person has died. Although a source has not been confirmed, some type of leafy greens, most likely romaine, are suspects in both. The E. coli strains linked to both outbreaks have been linked to previous outbreaks E. coli outbreaks linked to romaine lettuce. 


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How Were These Outbreaks Discovered?

When someone develops an E. coli infection, health officials use Whole Genome Sequencing (WGS) to identify the genetic fingerprint of the strain. These fingerprints are then shared to PulseNet, a national subtyping database coordinated by the CDC. When matching fingerprints appear, it means the people likely shared a common source of infection.

Using PulseNet, health officials were able to identify two groups of matching E. coli O157:H7 fingerprints, two outbreaks. Then, state and local health departments began interviews with the people sickened to determine what they ate before they became ill. At this point, they have not pinpointed the food source of either outbreak.  Here’s what they know so far.

E. coli Outbreak Unknown Source 1

Illnesses in this outbreak were reported from June 6, 2020, to October 5, 2020, among people ranging in age from 2 to 75 years old. Twenty-one illnesses were reported from the following eight states: CA (7), FL, (1) IL(1), MI (2), NJ (1), OH (7), UT(1) and WI (1).

Health officials have information for 16 of the people sickened. Of those, eight people were hospitalized including one person who developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) a form of kidney failure associated with E. coli infections. One person in Michigan died.

A cluster of illnesses (defined as two or more people from different households) is associated with a restaurant. The CDC has not released the name of the establishment.

The fingerprint of the E. coli O157:H7 strain associated with this outbreak has “previously caused outbreaks linked to different sources, including an outbreak linked to romaine lettuce in 2018. However, food linked to a previous outbreak alone is not enough to prove a link in another outbreak of the same strain. This is because different foods can be contaminated by the same strain of bacteria,” the CDC stated in its announcement.

The 2018 romaine lettuce outbreak caused by this same of E. coli O157:H7 was linked to romaine lettuce grown in Yuma, AZ. In that outbreak, 210 people were sickened, 96 were hospitalized, 27 developed HUS and five people died.

E. coli Outbreak Unknown Source 2

Illnesses in this outbreak were reported between August 17, 2020, to October 8, 2020, among people ranging in age from 5 to 81 years old.  The 23 illnesses were reported from 12 states: CA (2), Il (1), KS(4), MI (2), MO (2), ND (4), OH (1), PA (2), TN (1), UT (1), WA (1) and WI (2).

Health officials have information for 15 of the people sickened. Of those, 10 have been hospitalized, two with HUS.

The fingerprint of the E. coli O157:H7 strain associated with this outbreak matches the strain linked to three outbreaks that occurred in 2019, 2018 and 2017 linked romaine lettuce grown in Salinas, California.

During interviews with health officials, the people sickened in this outbreak all reported eating various types of leafy greens before they became ill. Specifically, nine people reported eating iceberg lettuce, nine spinach, eight romaine and six mixed bag lettuce. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is conducting traceback investigations, inspecting farms and sampling products in an effort to determine the source of the outbreak.

Dangerously contaminated leafy greens, and romaine lettuce specifically, is a problem the FDA keeps promising, yet failing to solve.

Symptoms of an E. coli Infection

Symptoms of an E. coli infection, which include abdominal cramps and diarrhea that can be bloody,  usually develop within one to five days of exposure. Between 5 and 10 percent of people with E. coli infections develop HUS. Symptoms of HUS, usually develop about a week after E. coli symptoms. They include bloody diarrhea, lethargy, pale skin, a decrease in urination, bloody urine, skin that bruises easily, fatigue, irritability, confusion and swelling of the face, hands, feet and body. Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care immediately.

If you developed an E. coli infection from contaminated restaurant food or food you purchased from a grocery store and would like a free consultation with an experienced E. coli lawyer, please contact the Pritzker Hageman E. coli Legal Team. We have represented clients in every major E. coli outbreak in the U.S.  You can reach us by calling 1-888-377-8900, sending a text to 612-261-0856, or by completing the form below. The consultation is free and there is no obligation.

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