According to press reports, the Perry County Health Department, more than 30 cases of Salmonella infection have been reported in the past five days, nearly six times the number they usually see in a year.

Health department officials said they don’t have enough information yet to determine a source and that the investigation is ongoing.

“We are speaking with Department of Health and Senior Services in St. Louis, our counterparts up there,” said Sheila Hahs, the department’s RN communicable disease coordinator. “They have specialists who do all the calculations and figure out what caused what.”

Hahs said that the investigators are putting together a survey that will be used as part of the inquiry into the source of the outbreak.

“It depends on how many people come up symptomatic,” Hahs said. “This could go on for a while. We could be having secondary cases.”

On Thursday, Perry County Memorial Hospital reported that there had been at least 23 cases of Salmonella infection diagnosed since Monday in patients ranging in age from 2 to 68, both through the PCMH emergency department and local doctors’ offices. By Friday, that number had risen to 32.

Of these, three have required acute hospital admission, two were admitted for short-term observation and treatment, and one was transferred to a hospital in Cape Girardeau.  The others are reportedly recovering at home with medication and hydration.

All cases resulting in positive tests for Salmonella bacteria were reported to the health department.

“Laboratories are required to report communicable diseases such as this,” Hahs said. “There is a reportable list that all labs and doctors’ offices have and when one of them comes across as the diagnosis, then that has to be reported.”

Doctors at PCMH were able to make rapid diagnoses thanks to a recent equipment upgrade in the hospital’s laboratory department. The new testing units, installed in July, cut the waiting period on test results from days to hours.

“It’s something that we purchased earlier this year,” said PCMH vice-president of operations Chris Wibbenmeyer, who also oversees the hospital’s laboratory department. “We actually have four units that this testing can be ran on. It was testing that we didn’t have before.”

Wibbenmeyer said the timing of the upgrades, which include a new, highly specialized gastrointestinal test panel that can accurately and quickly identify 22 of the most common organisms that cause abdominal symptoms, proved lucky in light of the outbreak.

“It just so happens that us implementing this G.I. panel happened just shortly before this outbreak,” Wibbenmeyer said. “It’s worked really well because it speeds up the diagnostic time by days. That’s beneficial to everyone. It has other testing capabilities — it’s not just GI testing  — and in all of those areas, we’ve reported significant reductions in the turnaround time for results and have improved the timeliness of getting appropriate medications to the patients. It’s proven its worth over and over again.”