More than 80 child protection employees were sickened by food poisoning last week, a situation that has decimated working teams at the Brant Family and Children’s Services agency.
Executive director Andy Koster said Thursday staff at the agency has been scrambling to help cover shifts after between 80-100 workers called in sick, beginning last Friday.
“Some people have symptoms that are going on well beyond the regular time associated with food poisoning,” Koster said. “But people are working really hard to deliver our services and those who aren’t ill are doing double duty.”
Koster said staff at the agency plans a once-a-year getaway event where all staff take part. A professional speaker addressed issues of stress management and dealing with the trauma many child protection workers face. This year’s event was held at the St. George Arena and a professional caterer was hired to feed the 200-plus people at the day-long conference.
Koster said egg salad wraps, chicken wraps and potato salad were all on the menu for lunch.
“On Friday morning we had people calling saying ‘we’re down four people on our unit’ and people were reporting stomach pains and diarrhea.”
Workers continued to call in sick, although Koster said some employees, knowing their colleagues were more ill, came to work.
The Brant County Health Unit stepped in, pulling workers from other teams to assist the infectious diseases unit, which is leading an investigation, said Karen Boughner, the unit’s director of health protection.
“We have quite an investigative process for something like this,” said Boughner.
Health unit workers have interviewed both those who were sick after the event and those who weren’t, so they can try to pin down the food involved.
They collected and sent samples for lab analysis of some of the foods from the caterer. Similarly, they’ve collected stool samples from some of those who are the sickest and those have gone off for testing.
“The reportable diseases are tested at a public health lab in Hamilton but the less common, non-reportable ones are being tested separately at a different lab in Toronto.”
Boughner said it’s important to pin down the source of the illness since, if it was food sold at a grocery store, it could affect a wider population.
“We have our suspicions but we hope to be able to identify the virus and what they ate. We may have the results back as early as tomorrow.”
There are several hundred possible bacterias that can cause food poisoning, including salmonella, E. coli, listeria, botulism and norovirus.
Boughner said some of the workers are still unwell, seven days after the luncheon, but noted that certain enteric diseases can run for five to 10 days.
“It’s not unusual and it helps us narrow the field a bit when it comes to identification.”
As part of the investigation, the health unit has been reviewing the travel history of the catering staff. Boughner confirmed that one of the staff had recently returned from a Third World country but said the investigation had almost certainly determined that had no bearing on the food poisoning.
Boughner said the unit will not identify the caterer at this point, noting the problem may have been totally out of her hands if it was a contaminated product she purchased for the event.
Boughner said the situation wasn’t made public sooner because it didn’t affect the general public.
The health unit has been providing information sheets to Brant Family and Children’s Services and fielding questions by phone from those who are sick.
“My heart goes out to them,” says Boughner. “Those who are still sick are really sick.”
Koster said along with the health unit, the Ministry of Child and Youth Services were notified about the situation. On Thursday, rant Family and Children’s Services staff – most of whom are back at work - met with the health unit in several town hall meetings to get more information about the food-borne virus or bacteria.
“We’ve been asked to complete some questionnaires and we’ve cooperated with everyone,” Koster said. “It was really a shame because it was one of our best staff days and everyone was really enjoying having a chance to meet with each other.”
Koster didn’t get sick.
“I was busy doing other things and by the time I got to the table there was almost nothing left. I had a biscuit.”
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