E. Coli Alert's Timing Questioned

In their Hagerstown home, Corinne, holding Roxie, and Warren Swartz discuss the death of June Dunning, Corinne's mother. They question whether Maryland officials did enough to alert residents about the E. coli threat.
In their Hagerstown home, Corinne, holding Roxie, and Warren Swartz discuss the death of June Dunning, Corinne's mother. They question whether Maryland officials did enough to alert residents about the E. coli threat. (By Erick Gibson -- Herald-mail Via Associated Press)
By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 24, 2006

HAGERSTOWN, Md., Sept. 23 -- The family of an elderly Hagerstown woman who died nearly two weeks ago after eating bagged spinach questioned Saturday whether government health officials had done enough to alert Maryland residents to the threat of E. coli contamination that has been linked to at least three people in the state.

"The story broke in the local newspaper Friday morning. Suddenly the [state] health department had a press conference on Friday afternoon," said Warren Swartz, son-in-law of June E. Dunning, 86, who died of E. coli illness Sept. 13 at Washington County Hospital in Hagerstown.

Dunning might be the second person killed in a nationwide E. coli outbreak, but state officials have been unable to conclusively link her case to the national outbreak because of problems completing a genetic test on the bacterium that infected her.

Swartz and his wife, Corinne, spoke Saturday to more than a dozen journalists crammed into their living room. The Swartzes appeared uncomfortable with the attention as they spoke of Dunning, a native of Britain and bingo enthusiast who could work up to 21 cards at once.

Although Warren Swartz raised questions about when information had been disseminated, he stopped short of criticizing government officials directly.

Also at issue are other cases in Maryland, including those of three children whose sickness was attributed to tainted spinach. The children are recovering, officials have said.

Dunning, who lived with the Swartzes and was an avid spinach eater, ate bagged spinach Aug. 28 and 30 and Sept. 1 -- steamed or as part of a salad -- becoming intensely sick shortly thereafter and being hospitalized. Her death occurred about the time news of the outbreak was spreading across the country. Swartz said he was able to retrieve some of the spinach from the family's refrigerator and give it to health investigators.

On Thursday, Swartz said, he contacted the Hagerstown Herald-Mail because he wanted residents to know about the possible threat. The newspaper's article was published Friday.

John Hammond, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said the agency was not withholding any information. He said Friday's news conference addressed a wider number of E. coli cases that officials are investigating.

Hammond would not say when state investigators found links to the other cases. He said he was told about them Friday morning.

He also said state officials called the news conference Friday primarily to announce the link to spinach of three E. coli cases in Maryland. At the same time, he said, the news conference allowed officials to address a deluge of phone calls they were receiving from reporters after the news report in Hagerstown.

Hammond declined to answer specific questions about Dunning. "It is inappropriate for us to comment on a specific case," he said. "We can't, and we won't."


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