2011-08-25 / Front Page

Cowans Gap Reopens To Fishing, Boating

E. coli found in well water; strain not the same as virus that sickened park visitors
By Chanin Rotz-Mountz

The source of an E. coli contamination that sickened more than one-dozen individuals, who reportedly swam in the lake at Cowans Gap State Park last month has not yet been identified.

In a recent announcement, park customers were advised late Wednesday, August 17, that due to a problem with drinking water all water should be boiled for one minute before washing dishes, in food preparation and, of course, drinking.

Reports indicate a “raw water sample” taken from one of the park’s two wells, before it was sent through the chlorination system, came back positive for the E.coli virus. The strain, however, is not the same as the E. coli O157:H7 strain that has caused at least 15 park patrons to fall ill.

E. coli contamination can come from contact with human or animal feces, either by direct contact or by eating or drinking what has come into contact with the feces. In addition, E. coli can also occur if meat is not properly processed or cooked or through raw fruits and vegetables.

Symptoms of E. coli include bloody diarrhea, cramps, vomiting and nausea. The illness is most prevalent among children but has been known to affect all ages. Several of the individuals having been infected with E. coli are reportedly being treated for a complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome or HUS. HUS is found in 5 to 15 percent of people with the E. coli 0157:H7 infection and can result in anemia and kidney damage.

As a suggestion to the findings, the park was slated to work side-by-side with the Department of Environmental Protection to update the park’s treatment to “provide a 4-log inactivation of viruses.”

On Monday, park officials announced the “precautionary” water boil was no longer necessary as the problem had been corrected.

The lake was officially closed to all water activities, such as swimming, wading, boating and fishing, on August 9. On Tuesday, August 23, Richard J. Allan, secretary of the Department of Conservation, reported that fishing and boating will again be permitted at the lake. Swimming, however, is strictly prohibited until further notice. Furthermore, the park will remain open for camping, cabins, pavilions and all other recreational activities.

The decision to reopen the lake to a limited number of activities, according to Allan, was based on the intensive two-week investigation and “ widespread” water sampling that failed to uncover the presence of E. coli.

“As always, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources wants to ensure safe and responsible use of our natural resources,” Allan stated, “By working with the departments of Health and Environmental Protection, we are confident that we can again allow some of the activities that our visitors most enjoy at Cowans Gap State Park.”

As a follow-up to the announcement, Department of Health Secretary Dr. Eli Avila stated it has been determined the E.coli outbreak resulted specifically from swimming. “Therefore, we feel confident that there is no current public health threat associated with the other recreational activities at the lake,” the doctor said.

In the meantime, water taken from the lake and wells that provides drinking water and water for the park’s wash stations continues to be tested. Results are currently being awaited from the Centers for Disease Control of water sampling performed immediately following the lake’s closure earlier this month.

The plethora of announcements and growing number of individuals infected with E.coli have taken their toll on the park’s business. The park draws well over 440,000 annually. Not only have the number of day visitors at the park dropped drastically but so has camping. In addition, the concession stand, contracted to a Baltimore, Md., man, remains temporarily closed due to the lack of business.

Anyone who was in the water at Cowans Gap Lake during the last month and has experienced diarrhea or other symptoms of E. coli is encouraged to contact their local healthcare provider or the state Department of Health by calling 877-724- 3258.

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