By: Candess Zona-Mendola

In the wake of a slew of holiday party food poisoning outbreaks this season, yet another has arisen. A large number of San Antonio, Texas residents have come forward with a new outbreak. This time after the San Antonio Housing Authority’s (SAHA) 19th Annual Golden Gala. The event, which was held on December 16, 2016 at the Joe Freeman Coliseum, had an attendance of about 950 people honoring the community’s elderly and disabled residents. Local dignitaries were also in attendance. The Education Investment Foundation annually hosts the event. Over fifty people have come forward with a rapid onset of food poisoning symptoms. One has reportedly died.

Investigation  

Shortly after the first reports came in, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health) began interviewing those who reported illness. Metro Health issued a media statement on December 20, 2016, concerning its involvement in the investigation of foodborne illnesses linked to the event. Metro Health and the San Antonio Fire Department have reportedly confirmed at least 10 people were rushed to the hospital with illness directly from the event. SAHA came forward soon after, and stated,

“Upon being made aware of a potential food borne illness … prompt medical attention was provided by the San Antonio Fire Department EMS and medical personnel from Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council for a number of people affected with gastrointestinal symptoms.”

SAHA, however, has not confirmed that they believe the event is necessarily to blame for the illness cluster. SAHA has confirmed that they are working with Metro Health to help identify the cause of the potential cases. According to Rosario Neaves, SAHA’s Director of Communications, she believes that any link between the Golden Gala and the illnesses is currently only “media speculation at this point.” Ms. Neaves purportedly told the San Antonio Current that conclusions should not be made yet, and that the reports of illness from the alleged victims only sound like food poisoning at this time. Ms. Neaves was quick to note that Metro Health did not connect any of the cases to the event as of the time of this post.

However, three days prior to Ms. Neaves’ statement, Metro Health’s Assistant Director Jennifer Herriot stated Metro Health’s December 20, 2016 the press release that,

“Metro Health is conducting an epidemiological public health investigation of a cluster of individuals becoming ill after attending the event. Metro Health has been working with SAHA on the preliminary investigation and will continue to investigate the situation and will take additional measures as appropriate.”

Ms. Herriot’s statement fuels additional speculation that there could potentially be a lead to the origin of the illnesses.

Early reports from Metro Health confirm that at least 85 people have been interviewed after attending the Golden Gala and the majority of them, at least 60%, confirm food poisoning-like symptoms. The total number of illnesses has not been confirmed at this time.

Investigations are still ongoing. It does not appear at this time that Metro Health has definitively determined the food or the cause of the food poisoning. The agency has not offered any information or speculation to the public either. An unknown number of people have reported to Metro Health that they were hospitalized. Metro Health and SAHA confirmed that they continue to seek information regarding any other persons claiming to have suffered illness after attending the Golden Gala event.

Who Made the Food?

Although Metro Health and SAHA appear to be mum on the details surrounding the outbreak, a public release of the catering contract and purchase order for the event has come to light. Initially, SAHA did not release the details of the vendor for the event. The released contract shows that SAHA hired Diehard Catering specifically for the event. The documents detail an estimate request for the typical holiday feast – turkey with stuffing and gravy, sweet potatoes, bread, green beans, cranberry sauce, and holiday desserts. The order confirms delivery of a catering order for 1,000 persons to the “19th Annual GG.”

Diehard Catering is a local San Antonio company that has been in business since 1992.  What little is known about the timeline confirms that the company prepared the food at a currently unknown off-site facility. SAHA established upon securing the estimate that the event location lacked a kitchen and sufficient means to maintain food at its proper temperatures for safety. The owner of Diehard Catering has not yet made any media statements or public comments.

At Least 50 Sick, 1 Has Died – Lawsuit Pending

At least one victim has come forward and was interviewed by KSAT news station. He claimed in the interview that the food tasted excellent, but he rapidly had an onset of food poisoning symptoms. He claimed he was not even able to make it to his apartment after the event before he became ill. Within a day, he was hospitalized. The victim told KSAT that he contacted SAHA about his illness, and SAHA told him that others were sick, so Metro Health was conducting interviews. The victim expressed his disgust toward SAHA for not releasing information sooner to the public about the outbreak.

On December 21, 2016, a local San Antonio family filed suit against Diehard Catering, claiming the wrongful death of Guadalupe Jimenez. Ms. Jimenez reportedly attended the Golden Gala. The family is seeking a million-dollar judgement against Diehard Catering. The lawsuit alleges that food prepared by Diehard Catering lead to severe food poisoning symptoms suffered by Ms. Jimenez. She was soon after hospitalized. After days of “excruciating pain,” Ms. Jimenez passed on December 19, 2016 – three days later. Her death is currently under investigation, as her preliminary autopsy reports blame atherosclerosis, or artery disease, for her death – not food poisoning. It may still be some time before the final autopsy report is finalized.

What Now?

As reports continue to be collected by Metro Health, hopefully further details of the event and the causes of the illnesses will be presented. Metro Health’s epidemiologists have not mentioned yet if they have obtained samples from victims to begin the serotyping process. Further, the precise hospital diagnoses of those alleging illnesses after the event have not been identified. Reports only mention that victims had “gastrointestinal illness.” The identification of a bacteria or virus causing gastrointestinal illness is most likely the next stage for Metro Health’s investigation.

If you or someone you love attended the Golden Gala event and have exhibited symptoms of food poisoning, it is a good idea to seek immediate medical attention. You can contact Metro Health at 210-477-6060 to report any illness related to the event.