McCONNELLSBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania officials descended on Cowans Gap State Park early Wednesday to search for the source of E. coli that sickened at least six park-goers, all of them children.
Although all six patients with confirmed E. coli bacterial illness swam in the park's lake between July 12 and 31, a Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources spokesman said the 42-acre lake will only be one part of the investigation.
Testing is being done on the lake water, food concessions, water fountains, sewage and water infrastructure, and wash houses.
Natural resources spokesman Terry Brady said only one set of results from regular testing this summer indicated bacteria levels outside the acceptable limit, prompting a one-day beach closure in mid-July. The health department is now conducting a focused investigation outside the typical two-day-a-week lake testing because the lake link has not been formally established.
The investigation launched this week could also include nearby businesses that sell food, because E. coli is commonly spread through food, Brady said.
"The (Pennsylvania) Department of Health said they'll look at all possible causes because they don't know what the link is," he said.
Meanwhile, the lake remains closed to swimming, fishing, boating and all other water activities until further notice as a precaution. The decision to close the lake was effective at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday.
The identified strain of the bacteria, E. coli O157, typically causes bloody diarrhea and cramping or pain, Dr. Andre Weltman, a public health physician for the health department said in an interview Tuesday.
A related, possibly fatal condition, Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome, can affect the blood and kidneys, he said.
The health department has reported six confirmed and three probable illnesses from E. coli O157 in Cowans Gap swimmers. Department spokeswoman Christine Cronkright said those figures were updated as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.
"The Bureau of State Parks has reached out to other state park systems across the nation," Brady said, saying the agency asked for feedback about similar situations.
All lakes and swimming pools at Pennsylvania state parks are tested twice a week under regular protocol, according to Brady.
"The criteria for testing is established by the department of health," he said.
Weltman said water testing for E. coli O157 would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in a haystack. Water samples instead reveal E. coli from the coliform group. He said stool samples are the effective testing method.
Brady said things like geese, livestock and human feces and organic decomposition churned up from the lake bottom can cause spikes in E. coli levels, leading to temporary closures. The median level for the month also can lead to closures.
"This is not one of our frequent problem lakes where we close it regularly," he said.
Brady said he did not have an estimate for how long the investigation that began Wednesday will take.
"It's going to take a while," he said.
Lake personnel received complaints Wednesday from people upset about the closure, Brady said.
The 1,085-acre park between McConnellsburg and Chambersburg, Pa., receives 465,000 visits a year. It is open for camping and other activities.