Lab tests show tainted hams likely triggered outbreak Inquiry continues in St. Mary's 'to figure out what happened'

November 11, 1997|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN STAFF

Laboratory tests confirmed that some or all of the 38 stuffed hams served at a church supper last week carried salmonella bacteria and likely triggered the outbreak that sickened 746 people, St. Mary's County health officials said yesterday.

Evidence also suggests the hams were tainted before they were served to more than 1,400 people at Our Lady of the Wayside Church, meaning they didn't spoil in the hours just before or during the Nov. 2 supper, said Dr. Ebenezer Israel, county health officer.

Investigators are focusing on the refrigeration, cooking, preparation and serving of the hams, in an effort to pin down the source of the illnesses.

"It will take us a few weeks to figure out what happened," Israel said. "But we will figure it out, eventually. Or at least have pretty good guesses."

Two people died after eating food served at the dinner, including Grace Oatley, 81, a member of the parish. Results of her autopsy are expected within 10 days.

Investigators doubt that the second death, that of a Baltimore woman who suffered a heart attack, was due to salmonella.

"It has not been ruled out, but it does not appear to be related," Israel said. "The state health department is still investigating."

Of those who fell ill, 161 reported to hospital emergency rooms. Eight remained hospitalized as of yesterday, said Mary H. Novotny, the county's health education coordinator. The last person known to have sought medical treatment went to St. Mary's Hospital on Sunday, a week after the supper, Novotny said.

"The outbreak is over," Israel said.

Novotny said the state health department laboratory had found salmonella in three specimens of turkey stuffing, as well as the hams. But investigators believe the stuffing was contaminated by the ham.

Samples of turkey, gravy and oysters tested negative for the microbe.

The hams were delivered in a refrigerated truck Oct. 30 to the church's parish hall, where 20 volunteers spent the day stuffing them with kale, cabbage and spices before wrapping them in cheesecloth. Then they were taken to a market in Mechanicsville, where they were boiled in vats for five hours.

Later, they were returned to another market in Chaptico, where they were sliced and refrigerated and delivered Nov. 1 to the church hall.

At the Sunday supper, church volunteers say, they kept small plates of ham out at a time, and refilled the plates every five to 10 minutes with ham from the refrigerator.

Pub Date: 11/11/97

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