South Carolina health officials said they were notified last month of potential E.coli cases in Greenwood, but a nearly three-week gap between the reported diagnoses meant it took a month before they linked the outbreak to a daycare center.
Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) officials released a timeline Wednesday of their investigation into eight cases (including one fatality) linked back to The Learning Vine daycare center. Two other patients have been hospitalized, although DHEC believes the outbreak does not present a risk to the general public at this time.
The agency said it was first made aware of a confirmed Shiga-toxin producing E.coli (STEC) case on May 18, but that patient reported having been symptom-free for a week by the time DHEC staffers conducted an interview. While most strains of E.coli are harmless and even beneficial to the human body, STEC can cause serious health issues. It is usually spread through contact with microscopic amounts of fecal matter.
DHEC said it gave the first patient “education on hand hygiene” and did not find any further lab matches for Greenwood County. But on May 29 they said they were informed of a second patient suffering from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states HUS is often spread through infection with STEC bacteria and causes the destruction of red blood cells. DHEC said its investigators suspected the second case was likely linked to the other patient three weeks earlier.
The Greenwood County Coroner’s Office announced on May 31 that 2-year-old Myles Mayfield had died from HUS complications (DHEC would not say if Mayfield was the second case it investigated). The agency said it interviewed close contacts of both known cases and found both individuals had ties to the Learning Vine. DHEC and the state Department of Social Services then investigated the facility and began testing the staff and children who spent time there. Parents had already been told about the potential cluster of cases and DHEC held a community meeting on June 5.
Seven additional STEC cases were identified via lab tests on June 7. Two of the individuals have been hospitalized, although health officials are not saying if they are children or adults. Later that day, DHEC said it reached a consent order with Learning Vine leaders to voluntarily close the daycare until all affected individuals could be tested and cleared.
Meanwhile, DSS said its own investigation turned up several complaints and violations. The facility was given a “C” grade (meets expectations) under the agency’s quality standards, according to Fox Carolina. The DSS website only lists the violations in broad terms and does not explain specifics, but the 12 complaints included “sanitary violations” and “improper medication practices.”
Learning Vine’s owners say they are “heartbroken” about what happened and said they called in professional cleaners to sterilize the center immediately after they received the first indication that a contamination might exist. “The Learning Vine has gone beyond what has been asked by DHEC to make sure our children and families are safe and healthy,” the daycare said in a release to news outlets earlier this week.
Symptoms of STEC infections typically include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Most people get better within five to seven days. However, children under five years, seniors, pregnant women, and people with a chronic health condition or a weak immune system are more prone to serious complications from E. coli infections.