Colorado Town Makes Progress in Salmonella Fight

Last month, the water supply in Alamosa—a town in Colorado—became tainted with the <"">salmonella bacteria, rendering the water there unfit to drink.  To resolve the problem, crews have been flushing Alamosa’s water supply with chlorine, which has also rendered the water unfit to drink.  Because of the initially high concentrations of chlorine used in the weeks-long flushing process, the residents of Alamosa were also unable to shower, wash dishes, or brush their teeth with municipal water.

Since the flushing, none of the tap water samples tested by state officials contained any salmonella, said state health department spokesman Mark Salley.  According to city clerk Judy Egbert, Alamosa water could be fit to drink any day now, but added that it will be at least midweek before the water can be declared safe for drinking.

At least 379 people have had the stomach cramping, diarrhea, fevers and other symptoms of salmonella infection, Egbert said.  Of those, 106 cases were confirmed with laboratory tests; 15 people have been hospitalized.  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; however, 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.

Late last month, Alamosa Mayor Farris Bervig wore a yellow shirt when the water alert went from red—a signal that there was no safe use of the water—to yellow, which was his code that short showers and doing laundry were fine.  “He’s got a green shirt now,” Egbert said. “We’re all ready.”

Since March 19th, Alamosa residents have been unable to use tap water for brushing teeth, washing dishes, drinking, and cooking.  Last week, there was not much the residents of Alamosa could do other than flush their toilets.  Schools and restaurants were closed and the National Guard was handing out bottled water.  The chlorination treatment moved into Stage 2 last weekend with lower chlorine levels that allowed most adults to take brief showers.  The ban on drinking, cooking, or brushing teeth with tap water will remain in place until the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment signs off on the water system testing.  There is a five-day turnaround between the samples’ arrival at the lab and final test results and crews are working to lower chlorine levels so testing may proceed.

It is not known how the water initially became contaminated with the salmonella bacteria and, to date, about 10,000 people are affected by the contamination.

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