Germs No Match For Montgomery's Nurse Detectives

Montgomery County's nurse detectives in the Disease Control team include, from left, Holly Conners, Cindy Edwards, Catherine Rasa and Celia Adams, who have more than 140 combined years of service. They investigate infectious-disease cases across the country to track down their causes and prevent larger outbreaks.
Montgomery County's nurse detectives in the Disease Control team include, from left, Holly Conners, Cindy Edwards, Catherine Rasa and Celia Adams, who have more than 140 combined years of service. They investigate infectious-disease cases across the country to track down their causes and prevent larger outbreaks. (Photo: Kevin Clark/Post)
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By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 18, 2008

Summer in the suburbs. For the innocent, that means cookouts, swimming, fresh produce, maybe a trip to the beach. But sunny fun has its dark side, and that means suspect potato salad, tainted pool water, toxic weeds, maybe a trip to the doctor because of "something I ate."

And when summer sickens, that's a job for Montgomery County's nurse detectives -- CSI: Diarrhea.

"It's a little bit crazy at this time of the year," said Cindy Edwards, a registered nurse and manager of the Silver Spring-based Disease Control team, a unit of Montgomery's Department of Heath and Human Services. "People are outside, they are playing with pets, they are going to picnics, children are at sleepover camps, little kids get sick in the swimming pool. There are a lot of ways for outbreaks to get started."

Edwards's squad is charged with investigating food poisonings, animal bites, waterborne illnesses and other infectious-disease cases that could, potentially, spin into a countywide threat. By questioning patients, keeping tabs on lab results from all over the county and sleuthing out the sources of salmonella, E. coli and other bugs, these five nurses in lab coats are the thin white line between Montgomery's million human residents and countless trillions of dangerous germs.

"We're always just a phone call away from a disaster," said Carol Jordan, who oversees the program as the health department's director of communicable disease and epidemiology.

Jordan's office also manages the county's tuberculosis, HIV and pandemic flu preparedness programs. But for the nurse detectives, the outbreaks tend to be of a smaller scale. Although the nurses won't reveal specifics, here are some cases from the Montgomery archives:

· When three unrelated people in the same Zip code recently had infections, the nurses walked the victims back through their recent eating until they came across a neighborhood restaurant common to them all. It got a visit from county health inspectors. The problems didn't recur.

· An investigator once noticed the same brand of pâté d' foie gras in the refrigerators of two women who had suffered miscarriages, which led to the discovery of an entire batch of the delicacy contaminated with lysteria bacteria and the closing of the plant that manufactured it.

· When a stray kitten turned out to be rabid, the nurses traced more than 700 people who might have played with the cat when it was up for adoption at a veterinarian's office.


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