By LISA SCAGLIOTTI
The Vermont Department of Health and officials from the federal Centers for Disease Control are investigating an outbreak of a highly drug-resistant bacterial illness at Wake Robin retirement community in Shelburne.
As of Tuesday, 22 cases of Shigella sonnei infections had been confirmed by health officials and another 44 probable cases had been reported among staff, residents and visitors at Wake Robin, according to the state health department.
Shigella is a bacterium closely related to E. coli and an infection from it can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever.
The health department said it began its investigation on Oct. 18 and notified the CDC on Oct. 22. By Oct. 30, state health officials activated a special response effort to coordinate work among those in infectious disease epidemiology, environmental health and laboratory staff, according to a news release issued Tuesday by the health department.
So far, health officials have not determined the cause of the outbreak.
The illness spreads easily from person to person, most commonly when an individual ingests something that has had contact with feces of an infected person.
Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont Health Commissioner said that the community should not be overly alarmed by the outbreak because it only spreads through interaction with an infected person or a contaminated object.
“Generally, we don’t see this spread through an entire community, like the flu,” he said.
The health department Tuesday said the outbreak was slowing and that there had not been a new case reported since Nov. 1. At its height several weeks ago, 10 to 15 new cases were reported per day, Levine said.
Wake Robin spokesman Ken Liatsos said the retirement community contacted state and federal health officials as soon as it became aware of the outbreak.
It quickly closed the group dining hall and staff is under strict sanitation protocols, he said, adding that the health center on campus is closed to visitors. “Wake Robin is taking some pretty aggressive measures to try to control this outbreak and prevent it from happening again,” he said.
Levine said Wake Robin’s response has been appropriate.
“Wake Robin has been a good partner in responding to this outbreak,” he said.
Levine explained that the CDC’s involvement was called for due to the nature of the illness and how it did not respond to antibiotics.
“When bacteria are resistant to antibiotics, the treatment we would normally use may not work, and the bacteria can continue to multiply,” Levine said. “Fortunately, most people who get this will recover in five to seven days without the need for treatment.”
The health department’s statement Tuesday emphasized that the best prevention against a Shigella or other infection is to wash hands often and well, particularly after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and before preparing or eating food.
News of the outbreak was first reported by VtDigger on Monday.
Wake Robin officials on Tuesday said they were loosening some of the “social restrictions” on residents related to the sickness, Liatsos said. People were asked not to gather while the sickness was spreading, but now that the spread of the illness has slowed, administrators said people could resume some of their regular activities.
The dining hall, however, would remain closed until health officials give an all-clear, Liatsos said, “in an abundance of caution.”
VtDigger contributed to this report.