DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN and JAMAL THALJI
Despite that certainty, tests show that a 12-year-old Pasco girl who died wasn't infected with E. coli after all.
TAMPA - Last week, Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi expected that the number of people reported to have fallen ill after visiting one of two state fairs would rise as news spread.
On Wednesday, just as he predicted, the numbers jumped again.
There are now 22 confirmed cases statewide, up from 17 on Tuesday, and they include two in Pasco County.
Also the state added more suspected cases to its last count of 20, bringing the total to 24. That number includes three in Hillsborough and two in Pinellas.
Those confirmed patients all suffered from diarrhea after attending either the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City or the Central Florida Fair in Orlando.
Their lab results all turned up positive for a specific strain of E. coli or hemolytic uremic syndrome, HUS, a fairly infrequent and life-threatening complication of the E. coli infection.
Health officials are still trying to determine the source of the bacteria, which originates in animal feces.
The stricken fell ill after either eating undercooked and tainted beef, or they may have touched animals with that particular strain of E. coli during fair-related activities such as petting goats, riding a pony, milking a cow or racing pigs.
It can become a severe and debilitating illness, frequently requiring admission to a hospital and, in some cases, intensive care and dialysis.
HUS was suspected in the death of 12-year-old Kayla Nicole Sutter, who collapsed and died at her Wesley Chapel home March 23. But Wednesday the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office ruled out the HUS-linked E. coli strain in her death.
Cultures taken from the Weightman Middle School seventh-grader and sent to the Florida Department of Health for testing came back negative Wednesday for E. coli.
"They are negative for the E. coli strain, and that's pretty self-explanatory," said Bill Pellan, the medical examiner's director of investigations. "If the cultures are negative, that pretty much rules (HUS) out as a cause of death."
Though the medical examiner reached a clinical decision in Kayla's death, state officials said their investigators must still make an epidemiological decision before removing her from the list of suspected HUS cases.
The cause of Kayla's death is still unknown, and could take weeks to determine. Kayla's family told a Pasco epidemiologist she had visited the Florida Strawberry Festival petting zoo.
In the wake of the outbreak, officials at the Lake County Fair in Eustis, scheduled to open April 7, nixed any plans for a petting zoo.
The company that owns the petting zoo is the same one used by the Florida Strawberry Festival and Central Florida Fair, said Happy Norris, manager of the Lake County Fair.
"It was a big part of our fair," Norris said. "But we're looking out for the concern and safety of fairgoers. Until we do know what the source is, we've got to do what we've got to do."
Norris said they're adding additional signs throughout the fairgrounds to remind the public of the importance of washing their hands after handling animals. Also, they've ordered more sanitizing stations. "We're trying to do what we can to educate the public on the safety of washing up after they handle the animals," he said.