By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The San Antonio Housing Authority’s annual Golden Gala is considered a “must-go” event in San Antonio’s senior community. The event is a tradition for the agency. Amid the red and white linen tables, guests of the SAHA’s 19th Annual Golden Gala event were dazzled with live performances, including a mariachi band and traditional dancers. Live music and dancing were aplenty, and more than one guest jumped at the chance to cut-a-rug on the dancefloor. In the past, local television programs and entertainers have graced the Golden Gala’s stage. In 2012, the event was even filmed and showcased on local television. In fact, the event is well-remembered for its good time. SAHA has even represented it as a “well-loved event” for the senior community. This year, however, the Golden Gala is faced with a different stigma – food poisoning.

About the Golden Gala

In 1997, SAHA staff members, with the help of Sammy Nieto of Valero and Sister Joe of St. Paul’s Catholic Church banded together to create a holiday tradition for San Antonio’s elderly and disabled residents. Their goal was to bring “a true holiday celebration” to these residents. What started as a small event held in St. Paul’s Church parish hall, soon became a “premier event” among its target audience. The event soon became a celebration to highlight and recognize residents in the community who go above and beyond to make a difference.

Now, every year, SAHA, through its Education Investment Foundation, hosts the Golden Gala event. On its annual Moving to Work Plan, SAHA considers the Golden Gala as one of its events that promote health and wellness. This community-sponsored event is made possible by donations from various sponsors throughout the community – including past sponsors like Valero, City of San Antonio, Amerigroup, Nix Health, Well Med, AARP, among others. The event itself is solely ran by volunteers, from the various businesses who sponsored the event to the local middle school students. More than 1,000 residents are transported from their homes to the event location via chartered buses. Kris Kringle himself is also typically in attendance bringing gifts and posing for pictures. This year, SAHA spokeswoman Rosario Neaves reported that approximately 950 people attended the event held at the Joe Freeman Coliseum.

What Happened This Year?

During and within hours of the event, the first of the guests began to report severe and sudden gastrointestinal symptoms – including nausea, vomiting, stomach cramps, and diarrhea. A local news station, KSAT, reported that some guests were rushed to the emergency room via ambulance directly from the event itself. Some people report hospitalizations, and most report to have recovered within a few days. One San Antonio family, however, alleges that the event is the cause of their loved ones’ death three days after the Golden Gala. That family filed a lawsuit against SAHA’s retained catering company, Diehard Catering, on December 21, 2016, alleging wrongful death and judgment exceeding one million dollars.

Initially, the reports of food poisoning potentially related to the event were vague. SAHA, at the time, did not offer a name of the company chartered for catering. In fact, SAHA is cautious in providing the media with details about the event. Currently, Spokeswoman Neaves is pressing the public to remain open-minded and that the majority of what is out there is “media speculation.”

What is SAHA and Metro Health Doing?

The good news of this situation is that it is not being swept under the rug. The San Antonio Metropolitan Health District (Metro Health) began interviewing those who reported illness within a few days of the initial reports. On December 20, 2016, Metro Health issued a public statement concerning its involvement in the investigation of food poisoning purportedly linked to the event. Metro Health has mentioned that it is working closely with SAHA to get to the source of the outbreak. Spokeswoman Neaves represented to another local news outlet, Current, that SAHA provided Metro Health with an invitee list of all Golden Gala attendees for their investigation and interviews.

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. It appears that investigations have been halted in observance of the Christmas and Winter holidays. Metro Health is expected to reopen on January 2, 2017. SAHA also closed its offices on December 23, 2016 for the holidays. They will reopen on January 2, 2017.

Investigations are still ongoing and will most likely re-commence on January 2. As mentioned in our previous post, 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.

On December 21, 2016, SAHA posted on its Facebook and Twitter feeds that if anyone knew someone, or themselves were, ill due to the Golden Gala event, that the Resident Assistance hotline was to be contacted. On the same day, SAHA posted that they are “actively monitoring the health of residents who attended the event on Dec. 16. We will provide updates as we get more info.” There have not been any further Facebook or Twitter updates as of the date of this post.

As previously noted, Metro Health has interviewed approximately 85 people who were confirmed attendees of the event. Over 50 of those people reported gastrointestinal symptoms and illness during or within hours of the Golden Gala. It is unknown at this time if Metro Health intends to interview all 950 attendees.

What Happens Now?

As both agencies are closed for the remainder of the year, updates may not surface until early next week. Until then, Unsafe Foods will continue to monitor the progress of the investigation and keep you posted on the latest details. As always, if you or someone you love attended the Golden Gala event, and have symptoms of food poisoning, urgent medical care is recommended. You can contact Metro Health at 210-477-6060 to report any illness related to the event.