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Feb. 27, 2021

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Chipotle E. coli cases mount, with many Clark County victims

Officials say nearly third of 37 sickened are local residents

By , Columbian Health Reporter

The number of people infected with E. coli after eating at eight regional Chipotle restaurants has climbed to 37 — nearly a third of whom live in Clark County.

Health officials on Tuesday reported 25 cases of E. coli in Washington and 12 cases in Oregon. That’s up from the original 19 Washington and three Oregon cases reported on Saturday, when health officials first announced their investigation.

Nine people in Washington have been hospitalized. In Oregon, three people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.

In Washington, the bulk of the illnesses have been reported in Clark County. As of Tuesday, 11 local residents have been sickened after eating at Chipotle restaurants in Hazel Dell and Portland. One Clark County resident has been hospitalized but has since been released.

The rest of the Washington cases are in King (6), Skagit (4), Cowlitz (2) and Island (2) counties. The ages of people involved range from 5 to 60 years old, according to state health officials.

In Oregon, most of the cases have been reported in the Portland metro area — Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties — but people in Columbia, Benton and Deschutes counties have also recently reported symptoms, said Dr. Katrina Hedberg, state health officer with Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division, at a news conference Tuesday.

Health officials suspect the outbreak is caused by fresh food products — such as lettuce, tomatoes, fresh salsa or cilantro — because those who have gotten ill have eaten a variety of meat and vegetarian products, Hedberg said. Because so many of the dishes have similar ingredients, determining the exact cause of the outbreak will be challenging, she said.

“It’s very difficult to identify the culprit,” Hedberg said. “We may never be able to identify it.”

Oregon health officials have identified the strain of E. coli involved as Shiga toxin E. coli O26, Hedberg said. The O26 strain is less common than E. coli O157 and often has symptoms that are less severe, she said.

Most people infected with E. coli O26 develop diarrhea, which is occasionally bloody, and abdominal cramps. Some illnesses last longer and can be more severe, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who are infected with E. coli O26 typically begin to show symptoms between two and eight days after swallowing the organism, with the average being three to four days, according to the CDC.

The outbreak appears to be limited to the Pacific Northwest and eight Chipotle restaurants in the region. In response to the outbreak, Chipotle voluntarily closed 43 of its restaurants in Washington and Oregon as a precaution, including both Clark County locations.

Washington and Oregon health officials are working together to establish criteria for the restaurants to reopen. In the meantime, Chipotle has conducted deep cleanings and sanitization of the restaurants; conducted environmental testing in restaurants and food testing in restaurants and distribution centers; replaced all food items in closed restaurants; and tested some ingredients before resupplying, the company said in a statement Tuesday.

Chipotle is working closely with health officials as they conduct their investigation, and the company has also retained two food safety consulting firms to help the company assess and improve its food safety standards, according to the statement.

“The safety of our customers and integrity of our food supply has always been our highest priority,” said Steve Ellis, chairman and co-CEO of Chipotle, in the statement.

“Our deepest sympathies go out to those who have been affected by this situation and it is our greatest priority to ensure the safety of all of the food we serve and maintain our customers’ confidence in eating at Chipotle,” Ellis said.

On Tuesday, Kelso resident Charmaine Mode filed a lawsuit against Chipotle in U.S. District Court. The lawsuit claims Mode contracted an E. coli infection after eating a burrito bowl on Oct. 21 at a Vancouver Chipotle restaurant.

Denver-based Chipotle was launched in 1993 and now operates more than 1,900 restaurants, nearly all in the United States.