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Cause still sought, may never be known, in Calgary daycare E. coli breakout

EDMONTON — The exact cause of a massive E. coli outbreak at Calgary daycares may never be known, Alberta's chief medical officer said Tuesday. Dr.
Dr. Mark Joffe speaks to the media about an E. coli outbreak linked to multiple Calgary daycares in Calgary, Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023. Alberta’s chief medical officer says the exact cause of a massive E. coli outbreak at Calgary daycares may never be known. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

EDMONTON — The exact cause of a massive E. coli outbreak at Calgary daycares may never be known, Alberta's chief medical officer said Tuesday. 

Dr. Mark Joffe says investigators are checking thousands of pieces of information as they continue to try to narrow the source of the outbreak that has led to hundreds of illnesses and the closure of multiple daycares over the past two weeks.

The 11 daycares at the root of the breakout shared a commercial kitchen, which is considered the likely source of the outbreak and has been shut indefinitely.

Joffe says the investigation is massive and complex as a team of researchers are listing and comparing food histories over a two-week period for 1,150 children and 250 daycare staffers.

“We are doing everything we can to identify exactly how this outbreak occurred, what happened, when it happened, why it happened and then ultimately, that will help us to prevent the next outbreak,” Joffe told a news conference at the legislature.

“It is possible that we are never going to know the exact source of the outbreak, but we are doing our very best to narrow it down.”

Officials say the initial outbreak appears to have levelled off at 348 cases, unchanged from a day earlier.

There are eight children in hospital, one less than the day prior. All of the children have hemolytic uremic syndrome, a severe illness that affects the kidneys. Two patients are on dialysis, one less than a day earlier.

The 11 daycares have since been allowed to reopen and 707 children connected to the outbreak have been cleared to go back to a daycare.

However, another six daycares are under full or partial closure since late last week. They have seen cases of secondary transmission from those in contact with children at the original daycares or children from those daycares coming to the new facilities.

“The temporary closure of a daycare is not taken lightly,” said Joffe.

“If your daycare is closed, please respect why this is done and keep your children at home. 

“Only send your child to another facility if they've tested negative for E. coli, if they have no symptoms, and if they've been given clearance from (health officials).”

There are 27 cases of secondary transmission, a total that has remained the same for two days.

Searle Turton, the minister for children and family services, said the province has begun to review other shared commercial kitchens for daycares, starting with gathering data on the number of kitchens and who uses them.

“We’ll be continuing that work until we get all the information that we require,” said Turton.

The Opposition NDP has called for a full public inquiry, saying Premier Danielle Smith’s government can’t be trusted to investigate itself. 

Smith has committed to study what happened, but has not committed to a formal public inquiry, saying those are questions to be tackled once the outbreak is completely in hand.

Smith has committed the government to giving families $2,000 per child at the original 11 daycares to help parents struggling with financial hardship as a result of the closures.

The central kitchen, located in downtown Calgary, is run by Fueling Minds Inc., which shares directors with six of the 11 daycares, operating under the corporate title Fueling Brains Academy.

Joffe declined to say what is to be done with the kitchen or what would have to occur for it to reopen.

“I think there are a number of steps in the works, but for now that facility is closed indefinitely,” said Joffe.

Smith's government has faced questions over why the kitchen was allowed to remain open after earlier health violations were identified.

A report detailing health violations at the kitchen said improper sanitation, live cockroaches and issues around food handling were found following an inspection that was done a day after the outbreak was declared.

Previous inspection reports also found violations, including cleanliness and sanitation issues, an expired food handling certificate and inadequate handwashing facilities dating back to July 2021.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2023.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press