A suspected foodborne illness outbreak in Homer was investigated last week after more than 70 South Peninsula Hospital employees began experiencing gastrointestinal illnesses, including diarrhea and stomach cramps. The investigation was conducted by the Alaska Department of Health and Social Service’s Section of Epidemiology in coordination with the Alaska Department of Conservation Food Safety & Sanitation Program.
According to a Facebook post on Friday from DHSS, food from a variety of local restaurants was brought into the hospital for the employees’ lunch, and several began feeling ill later Thursday afternoon. South Peninsula Hospital Director of Public Relations and Marketing Derotha Ferraro said the hospital’s dietary department was short staffed last week and only served patients and residents, so the hospital brought in box lunches from local businesses to feed employees.
In an update Monday on the DHSS Facebook page, the department reported that as part of the investigation, officials from the DEC Food Safety and Sanitation program looked at sanitation and food handling at the business linked to the outbreak.
“It appears that the source of illness was a single food item that was prepared for hospital staff. The implicated food item was not sold to the general public. DEC has closed its portion of the investigation and has determined that there is no ongoing risk to the public,” the post said.
For the people who ate the implicated food and got sick, symptoms resolved within about 24 hours, according to DHSS. No one involved in the outbreak required hospitalization.
After dozens of employees called in on Friday with gastrointestinal issues, they all were required to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to work. Ferraro said state epidemiologists were able to determine the sickness was not caused by COVID-19 and began investigating other sources for the outbreak.
“Our infection prevention team reached out to state epidemiology, and they interviewed us and got all of the facts,” Ferraro said. “They were able to confidently say that this was not a COVID-related event, and they went ahead and cleared us all to work.”
A list of restaurants who provided food for the hospital employees all last week was reported, but DHSS has not released the determined source of the outbreak. The DHSS Section of Epidemiology and Department of Conservation Food Safety & Sanitation Program was to provide an investigation report to the hospital on Monday.
No hospital patients consumed the food or were affected by the staff shortage. Ferraro said while the hospital was short staffed on Friday while waiting for the test results, most of the employees had returned to work by mid-morning.
“Most importantly, this did not impact patients or residents in any way,” Ferraro said. “We were able to cover all shifts first thing in the morning, so our care was not compromised.”
Anyone experiencing foodborne illness symptoms, primarily gastrointestinal illness, and has been in the Homer area this past week was encouraged to contact their health care provider and complete this anonymous survey to help DHSS determine the source of the outbreak. DHSS officials thanked members of the public who participated in the survey and helped the investigation.
In Monday’s post from DHSS, officials advised that in the event someone experiences suspected foodborne illness, they can make a report at this webpage: https://dec.alaska.gov/eh/fss/yuck-line/ or by calling or texting the Yuck-line at 907-764-9825 (YUCK); the line is staffed from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday (not including holidays). For Anchorage area only, please call 907-343-4200.
Reach Sarah Knapp at firstname.lastname@example.org. Homer News editor and reported Michael Armstrong contributed to this story. Reach him at email@example.com.