By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The Florida Department of Health and local Lake City, Florida agencies are currently investigating a mystery illness that hospitalized thirty people, the majority of which are children, on February 4, 2017. The mystery illness had a sudden onset during the Florida Science Olympiad, which was held in the gymnasium of Florida Gateway College. Due to the sudden onset and amount of people involved, those who were sick were rushed to Lake City Medical Center and Shands Lake Shore via ambulance.

The severe symptoms of vomiting and diarrhea exhibited by those afflicted was initially suspected to have been caused by hazardous materials at the science competition. Early investigations conducted by various local governmental agencies, including Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Columbia County Fire Rescue, and Emergency Management agencies, overruled that theory. According to the Florida Department of Health, those who became sick all attended the same catered lunch. It is speculated that food served at the lunch, namely barbeque pulled pork sandwiches, could be the culprit source of the illnesses.

Investigations Pending

The Florida Department of Health is currently investigating the outbreak. Due to the rapid response, the agency was able to secure food samples of various food items from the event itself. In the coming days, these food items will be tested for dangerous pathogens and those who have become ill may be interviewed by the agency. The name of the catering company has not been released at this time.

The local media outlets interviewed the Florida Department of Health through its Spokesman Mark Lander. During the interview, Mr. Lander commented:

“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 agency further commented that they believe they will have further details concerning this incident sometime next week. At this time, there have not been any public reports released as to what pathogen or formal diagnosis the hospitals have given the victims. A parent has posted to the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page that her involved son was discharged from the hospital and is home resting.

What Could the Mystery Illness Be?

Although the majority of foodborne illnesses go unreported, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year in the United States, 31 pathogens cause 37.2 million diseases. Their study mentions that 90% of these that were foodborne in nature are caused by seven different pathogens. Norovirus is the most common of them all. The leading cause of foodborne illness deaths was from Salmonella, according to the study.

With the current outbreak, many worried parents and the general public are wondering what dangerous pathogen caused the mysterious illness. The Florida Department of Health, through its representative, may have a suspected pathogen in mind. As we await further details of the investigation and test results, we at Unsafe Foods have created a list of what potential foodborne pathogens could be at the root of these illnesses.

  1. Norovirus. As previously noted, Norovirus is the most common of all foodborne pathogens. Frequently identified as “the winter vomiting bug” or the “stomach flu,” this virus is very contagious and caught by eating contaminated food. The symptoms of Norovirus are commonly what one would expect are food poisoning: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, and weakness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the majority of outbreaks related to Norovirus come from restaurants. Food from these establishments is usually contaminated by sick food service workers who touched food with their bare hands. The onset of illness for Norovirus is also fairly quick, usually within 12 – 48 hours after eating contaminated foods.

Why Norovirus Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The symptoms mentioned by the governmental agencies are on par with Norovirus symptoms. The onset of illness is a little shorter than typical, but should not be ruled out. Again, Norovirus is also common, so it is highly likely to be the pathogen source.

  1. Staphylococcus. As previously seen last year with the Southern Nevada Housing Authority outbreak, Staph has a very rapid onset, usually within 1 to 6 hours of eating food that has been contaminated by the bacteria. Unlike Norovirus, 25% of people have Staph bacteria on their hands and noses. Symptoms of a foodborne Staph infection are typically nausea and vomiting. However, in some instances, diarrhea may be present. Staph infections usually come from improperly refrigerated foods or foods that have been left out too long.

Why Staph Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The onset of illness is within the timeframes for a Staph infection. If it is a severe infection, the symptoms may also match the pattern for the infection. Depending on what is discovered about the catered food, Staph may be the culprit if it is discovered that food was left out too long.

  1. Clostridium botulinum. Clostridium botulinum or botulism is typically found in jarred or canned foods that have not properly been packaged or stored. Someone can also become infected with botulism through baked potatoes in aluminum foil. Like Norovirus, symptoms do not typically show until 12-72 hours. However, the symptoms are similar to what little information has been provided, including: vomiting, diarrhea, blurred vision, double vision, difficulty in swallowing, and muscle weakness.

Why Clostridium Botulinum Could be the Mystery Pathogen: Like with Norovirus, the timing of the symptoms is a bit off, but should not be ruled out. Depending on what else may have been served at the lunch, this pathogen could be the culprit.

  1. Salmonella is another common bacterium found in most foodborne illness cases. With an onset of 6-48 hours, it is another pathogen that may fit the quick onset timing observed in this outbreak. The typical symptoms of a Salmonella infection also fit the pattern with diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, and vomiting. A person usually becomes infected with Salmonella from undercooked poultry and eggs. However, the bacteria can also be transmitted through unpasteurized dairy products, juices, vegetables, and other contaminated meats.

Why Salmonella Could be the Mystery Pathogen: The onset of illness is within the timeframes like a Staph infection. The symptoms also match the pattern for the infection. Depending on what is discovered about the catered food, Salmonella may be the culprit if any of the food was undercooked or unpasteurized.

But, what about the usual pathogens in undercooked pork?

As pork is currently the suspected source, many would believe that Yersinia enterocolitica bacteria or roundworms causing Trichinosis may be to blame if the pork was undercooked. It is important to note that although they should not be completely ruled out, it is highly unlikely that the pathogen is either of these, and their onset of symptoms are outside of a few hours. Roundworm infections typically show symptoms within 1-2 days, while Yersinia enterocolitica usually doesn’t show symptoms until 4 to 7 days.

What Can You Do?

If you or someone you love attended the Lake City Florida Science Olympiad held at the Florida Gateway College and have become ill, urgent medical attention is recommended. The above assumptions are not intended to act as a medical diagnosis. 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