By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The small Florida town of Lake City was in a state of urgency yesterday as over two dozen grade-school science students were rushed to nearby hospitals with concerning illness symptoms. The symptoms were so severe that local authorities believed that hazardous materials present at the middle school science competition were the cause. However, after early and speedy investigation tactics, the hazardous materials theory was rejected. Instead, the culprit of the outbreak may be barbeque pulled pork sandwiches eaten by the attendees during a catered lunch event held during the Florida Science Olympiad held at the Florida Gateway College.

Outbreak Status – Signs and Symptoms

The thirty people, twenty-eight minor children and two adults, all showed similar symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea, according to a local agency investigating the event. As the onset of symptoms was so sudden, local authorities were quick to act not only to investigate the source, but to get the victims urgent medical attention. Multiple ambulances were dispatched to transport those who had fallen ill to several different local hospitals. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office assisted the Columbia County Fire Rescue and Emergency Management agencies worked together with the transport of those who had fallen ill. According to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, the emergency care was orchestrated to ensure all those ill received urgent medical attention due to the high numbers of people sick in a short time period.

The Florida Department of Health made a statement on Saturday that the signs and symptoms presented by those ill “point to foodborne illness.” During a media interview, Mark Lander, Spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, publically stated:

“Typical foodborne illness, what we see, is that onset is about four to seven hours after about seven hours with the majority of foodborne illnesses that we work with.”

The Florida Department of Health offered encouragement to families of those who have fallen sick and remarked that they believe those who are sick should recover quickly. The only information currently available is that those who are ill are showing signs and symptoms that appear to be foodborne illness, including severe vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office. The agencies have not offered information about other potential symptoms or treatment of these symptoms.

Parents and guardians of some of the sick children have posted their concerns on social media in the last few hours. One very worried mother posted:

“Our local Lake City friends and family, please keep kids from the science competition in your prayers a ton were transported to hospitals, possible food poisoning. My son included. We need prayers. Multiple ambulances full of kids getting sick.

A mother was also interviewed by the media and commented that she was concerned for her 13 year-old son, who was among those hospitalized following the science competition. She told media:

“I was scared. They took his blood pressure and vitals and his blood pressure spiked. He said his hands were tingly. So, at that point, worried mom, I lost it.” The mother commented that she is still very worried for her son, as she does not know if there are any long-term or lasting effects that may be in her son’s future.

The Florida Science Olympiad

The Florida Science Olympiad is a competition for grade school students, in this case middle school students, that acts as an alternative to a science fair. Regional competitions for the Florida Science Olympiad are broken down into four categories:  North Regional (at Florida Gateway College in Lake City); Northwest Regional; Eastern Regional; Central Regional; Western Regional; Southeast Regional; and Southwest Regional. This year, the North Regional event was held at the Florida Gateway College gymnasium. Many grade-school students from multiple school districts came together to compete in 23 different areas of competition –including physics, chemistry, earth science, and biology with interactive, hands-on activities. Some activities are lab-based and research-based, according to the event’s website.

What to Expect in the Days to Come

The Florida Department of Health has already leapt into action and commenced its investigation. The local authorities are also assisting the Florida Department of Health in collecting information and were very helpful in the discovery that hazardous materials were not to blame. According to the local news media, the Florida Department of Health has obtained samples of numerous foods and food products present during the lunch and at other places at the event. The agency voiced to the media that testing will be done on the foods to find any dangerous and unsafe pathogens. In the days coming, the agency will interview those made ill by the mysterious illness to find more details and to hopefully narrow the source of the potential contamination. The caterer of the event is currently unknown.

Getting the Word Out

The agencies involved in the outbreak investigation are doing whatever they can to get the news out to the local community. The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office used modern methods and employed social media to the task. The agency posted to Facebook on February 4, 2017:

“@Columbiasheriff is assisting CCFR with an incident at Florida Gateway College where some students attending a middle school science fair have become ill. It is believed this is food related. This incident is being investigated with CCFR and Emergency Management being the lead agencies.”

On the heels of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office’s tweet, the Columbia County Fire Rescue Community Education and Fire Prevention also used Facebook to announce their involvement:

“CCFR is currently working a multi agency scene at Florida Gateway College. Multiple patients are reported to be vomiting and have diarrhea from an unknown source. The initial thought was a possible hazardous material but that has been eliminated. The only common denominator is the catered lunch provided to the participants of the Science Olympiad. The event was being held in the FGC gym. Please check back for more updates. #CCFR

What Can You Do?

If you or someone you love attended the Florida Science Olympiad held at the Florida Gateway College in Lake City and have become ill, urgent medical attention is recommended. It is encouraged to report any illnesses or related issues from this event to the Florida Department of Health at 850-245-4444. You can also visit their website at http://www.floridahealth.gov.