As Alamosa Salmonella Outbreak Grows, Residents Told it Could be Weeks Before Water is Safe

The number of <"">salmonella cases from tainted water in a small Colorado town are steadily rising.  But there’s not much more that Alamosa residents can do beyond flushing their toilets now that the municipal water system is off-limits for every other use.  Schools and restaurants are closed, the National Guard is handing out bottled water, and it could be weeks before life in Alamosa returns to back to normal.

The Alamosa Water Department, collaborating with crews from Denver Water, started its flushing of the municipal system at 9:00 am Tuesday.  The flush water has chlorine concentrations of 25 parts per million; three times more than what is found in chlorinated swimming pool water.  The super-chlorinated flush is the first of three phases for cleaning the system.  In the second phase, the chlorine levels will be elevated, but lower than that of the first phase.  It is during the second phase that people will be allowed to bathe.  In the third and final phase, Alamosa residents will be permitted to drink the water.

About 10,000 people are affected by the water contamination, including residents and students at Adams State College.  The state health department reports that the number of suspected cases has risen to nearly 250, with 70 confirmed by lab tests; there have been no deaths.  All ten people who were hospitalized for salmonella poisoning have been released and most businesses are open, but many restaurants and the city’s public school system are closed.  Alamosa Mayor Kathy Rogers said the community received $300,000 in state aid.  The 8,000 gallons of bottled water handed out daily was donated; Governor Bill Ritter applied for federal assistance.

Health officials said the Alamosa tap water tested positive for bacteria believed to be salmonella and authorities said the first victim began showing symptoms around March 8.  State emergency management officials activated an emergency operations center in the Denver suburb of Centennial to help coordinate deliveries of bottled water.  “The risk that a possible contamination is currently imposing on the health and well being of thousands of residents is worrisome,” said Senator Ken Salazar.  Governor Bill Ritter declared a public health emergency Friday and activated the Colorado National Guard to help distribute safe water.  Also, state health and emergency officials worked with dozens of companies to provide residents with bottled water.

People infected with salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps within 12 to 72 hours of infection.  Laboratory testing is required to determine the presence of Salmonella; additional testing can determine the specific type and which antibiotics are needed.  Generally, the illness lasts a week and most recover without treatment, but the elderly, infants, and people with impaired immune systems may require treatment and—in some—hospitalization is required because the infection may have spread from the intestines to the blood stream and other body sites.  Severe cases can result in death if not treated.  Waterborne salmonella outbreaks are fairly rare, said Mark Salley, a spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.  The bacteria are typically spread by food, he said.  Information about this outbreak is available at the COHELP line 1-877-462-2911; recorded information is available from 8:00 am and 11:00 pm, Monday through Friday.

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