Recent tests from the two wells at the Campfire Lodge and Resort near West Yellowstone came back positive for campylobacter, which is a bacteria health officials believe caused more than 85 cases of gastrointestinal illness since early July.
The lodge is currently under a boil order, which was issued July 26 after Montana Department of Environmental Quality officials discovered E. coli, fecal coliform in its drinking water system, said Shelley Nolan, with the DEQ’s public water system compliance division.
The Campfire Lodge and Resort is a complex that includes a campground, cabins, lodge and café on the banks of the Madison River between Hebgen and Quake Lake. The owners of the resort have declined to comment on the water problems.
The issue came to the attention of officials at the Madison Valley Medical Center in early July when the number of people with gastrointestinal problems coming into center began to increase, said Jim Clavadetscher, infectious disease coordinator at the medical center.
Medical officials soon discovered that many of their sick patients had similar symptoms and were testing positive for campylobacter, Clavadetscher said.
Campylobacter the sickness is a gastrointestinal illness that can only be transmitted by ingesting contaminated food or water. Campylobacter itself is a fecal bacteria common in mammals and birds. Symptoms of the disease are abdominal cramps, diarrhea, vomiting and a mild fever.
By July 19, officials at the medical center had seen enough patients to know they were dealing with an outbreak of campylobacter.
“That’s when I notified the county and state public health departments that it looked like we had a problem,” Clavadetscher said.
The medical center had begun researching the food histories of their patients and once they were notified of the outbreak, officials from the Madison County Health Department started compiling the histories, said Jill-Marie Steeley, Madison County Public Health Administrator.
“That’s where we start to see commonalities coming through,” Steeley said.
As of Tuesday, officials had counted about 85 cases of campylobacter. About seven of those cases are unconfirmed, she said.
Most of the hospitalized patients have been at the Madison Valley Medical Center, but a small number have come through Bozeman Deaconess Hospital as well, said Matt Kelley, with the Gallatin County Public Health Department.
The vast majority of cases had some contact with the Campfire Lodge and Resort, Kelley said.
The resort is both a campground and cabins along with a restaurant. The owners of the resort voluntarily closed the restaurant, Kelley said.
The resort complex is served by two wells, one is a deeper well and the other is a shallow, older well underneath the café, Nolan said.
Tests conducted last Thursday found fecal coliform and E. Coli present in the well beneath the café. That well has been disconnected from the system, she said.
“Because of the E. coli in the well, we believe that there may be some seepage, possible septic seepage into that well,” Nolan said.
The initial test results on the second well for fecal coliform and E. Coli came back clean. However, the campylobacter tests that came in Monday were positive on the second well.
Nolan isn’t comfortable with the campylobacter tests on the second well. There may have been some cross contamination with the first well. So she is testing the second well again.
The campylobacter test is a complex process and so must be done at the Center for Disease Control facilities in Atlanta, Nolan said.
Last week, the DEQ installed a portable chlorination system on the second well.
“That well is the one that we put the chlorinator on so they can get chlorine through out the distribution system so everything can be disinfected properly,” Nolan said.
The resort’s water system is considered a public system by the DEQ, she said. This means that it serves more than 25 people a day for 60 days of the year. There are 1,200 such systems in Montana. All are regulated by the DEQ and required to perform monthly testing.
The resort’s June water tests came back clean, Nolan said. In fact, the resort hasn’t had a bad test since 2000.
“We had no reason to believe this system was suspect,” she said.
Since notification of the problem, the owners of the lodge have been very cooperative, Nolan said.
Besides more water test, the DEQ is also going to inspect the resort’s sewer system, she said.
“We’re going to keep them on a boil order and continue disinfecting until we can do more investigation of the source and their distribution piping as well as an assessment of all the seepage pits that are located throughout the campground,” Nolan said.
And though about 85 cases of campylobacter have been confirmed, that likely represents only a portion of the people infected, Kelley said. Most people who were infected likely didn’t go to the hospital.
Campylobacter is one of the most common causes of gastrointestinal illness, he said.
“This is not cause for panic,” Kelley said. “This is cause for precaution.”
People who have campylobacter may not develop symptoms for two to 10 days from exposure, so there still may be people out there who are infected by don’t realize it yet, he said.
The most common symptom associated with the illness has been diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration, Steeley said.
“We’ve seen quite a few need to be hospitalized because of the dehydration factor,” she said.
Steeley encourages people who have had a gastrointestinal illness since June 25 and have been in the West Yellowstone area to call her at 843-4295.
“If they still have symptoms and are feeling quite sick, they need to go to the hospital and get treated,” Steeley said.
The influx of patients stretched the Madison Valley Medical Center and its staff, but everyone handled the outbreak very well, Clavadetscher said.
At one point, every bed in the hospital was full, he said.
“I thought we did exemplary. I was very impressed with our staff here,” Clavadetscher said. “It stretched us but it didn’t break us, which is good.”