Thursday, August 19, 2004

Mystery illness stalks island

Lake Erie vacation for many becomes night of nausea

The Associated Press

PUT-IN-BAY - A mysterious illness on Lake Erie's South Bass Island has sickened dozens of tourists and residents, leaving health officials searching for an answer.

In the past two weeks, health officials have documented 78 cases, and they are investigating more than 90 other claims of new illnesses, said Nancy Osborn, director of the Ottawa County Health Department.

"We're still looking for the link," she said.

The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency has ordered a winery and a bar on the island to stop using their septic systems after finding wells at the two sites tested positive for E. coli, said agency spokeswoman Dina Pierce.

She cautioned that there is no known connection between the illnesses and the two businesses, and added that some people who became sick did not visit either business.

EPA workers plan on taking more well samples at the two businesses, which are near each other.

Those who have become sick say they've suffered from nausea, chills, fever, abdominal cramps and vomiting. The symptoms generally last about 24 hours.

Tracy Bennett, 42, said she and her sister spent a day at the island three weeks ago. "We both got very sick, like clockwork, after two days. We were sick for two days," she said.

The wave of illnesses comes at the height of tourist season on the island, which sits just a few miles offshore and is about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland.

Put-in-Bay, a summer getaway known for its bed-and-breakfast inns, wineries, beaches and bars, draws about 15,000 people by boat on the weekends.

The village's mayor, Mack McCann, said inspections of the water and sewer systems have found no problems.

McCann, who owns several businesses on the island, said the illness has not hurt tourism.

"The health department has not said, "Don't come here,' because they don't know what they have here," McCann said.

The county health department hopes to know more by the end of the week, when it expects to receive results of tests from the Ohio Department of Health, Osborn said.

The department is testing samples from those who have been stricken.

Managers and employees at Mr. Ed's Bar and Grill were covering extra shifts since the outbreak began a few weeks ago, manager Jeremy Fitzgerald said.

"Everyone has gotten sick," he said. "I think I'm the only one who hasn't."

Other business owners say only a few employees have missed work.

"The island's just buzzing with golf carts," said Tip Niese, owner of the Beer Barrel Saloon.

Others haven't been so fortunate.

Bobbi Cousino, 26, of Toledo, said she and two co-workers became sick after visiting the island a week ago. She said she had to stop her car several times after becoming ill on the way home.

"One second you're kind of hot, then you get cold," she said. "It's a feeling I've never had. It wasn't a fun experience."

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