Boy Scout Camp's Closure Is a First

At Least 19 People Contracted E. Coli

Steve Conner's son Colum, 8, of Herndon was at Goshen Scout Reservation last week.
Steve Conner's son Colum, 8, of Herndon was at Goshen Scout Reservation last week. (By Jonathan Mummolo -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008; Page B01

A Boy Scout camp in Goshen, Va., which has been hosting Washington area Scouts for four decades, closed early for the first time in its history after more campers fell ill, and health officials announced yesterday that beef collected from the camp tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

State and federal officials were investigating the source of the tainted meat, whether people outside the camp could have been exposed to it and whether a recall is necessary.

At least 19 people connected to the camp, most from Northern Virginia, have tested positive for the bacteria, and about 10 of them have been hospitalized, health officials said. As many as 67 people in Virginia who attended the camp have exhibited symptoms, said Christopher Novak, an epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health.

Officials had believed that exposure to the bacteria was limited to about 1,700 people who were at the camp, near Lexington, between July 20 and 26. After the initial reports of people falling ill, Scout officials pulled ground beef, a common source of E. coli, from the camp menu on July 28, imposed sanitary precautions and kept the camp running in consultation with the Department of Health, officials said.

But on Sunday, Scout officials learned that at least two more campers who attended Goshen last week were also showing symptoms of the bacterial infection, which include bloody diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Scout officials then cancelled plans for hundreds of Scouts to attend the final week of camp at Goshen Scout Reservation, which would have started this past Sunday.

It is the first time the 4,000-acre facility, a perennial favorite of Scouts in the Washington region, has shut down since it opened in 1967, said Alan Lambert, Scout executive for the Boy Scouts of America's National Capital Area Council.

The reservation includes six camp areas and the 450-acre Lake Merriweather, and it hosts about 6,000 Scouts from dozens of troops each summer.

"This is what the kids look forward to all year long," Lambert said at a news conference yesterday. "It is a big deal to close it down. . . . [But] the safety of our kids was the first thing and the only thing, really, I've been concerned with."

The latest cases have not been confirmed as E. coli, Novak said.

Officials did not have a timeline for when the investigation into the source of the beef would be completed and did not name any companies associated with its production, but they said there is a chance tainted beef from the same source could have gone elsewhere.

"We've received the laboratory test information from the Virginia Department of Health, and we'll be investigating the source of the sample that they tested," said Laura Reiser, a spokeswoman for the Food Safety and Inspection Service, an agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The tainted beef was collected at Goshen on July 28, one day after the Health Department began receiving reports of sick children, Novak said. Boys from about 70 troops and their adult chaperones had just returned home after a week at the reservation.

Novak said the Health Department will continue to examine other possible sources of infection, as well as whether any of the cases were secondary infections: a camper contracting the bacteria from a latrine used by a camper who got sick from eating beef, for example.

"We're still considering various other ways the organism can spread," Novak said.

As of yesterday afternoon, two Northern Virginia campers remained hospitalized with hemolytic uremic syndrome, a complication that can occur when the toxin produced by E. coli enters the bloodstream, Novak said. The condition can lead to kidney failure and necessitate dialysis, but the "large majority" of patients recover, Novak said. The condition of the two boys was not known yesterday.

Health officials have identified the bacteria as E. coli O157, a toxin-producing strain that can cause inflammation of the lining of the bowels and leads to the leakage of fluid, Novak said. Cooking meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit typically kills harmful bacteria, Novak said.

Some Scouts at Goshen cook their own food, but Scout officials said they increased supervision over cooking after the start of the outbreak.

Herndon resident Michael Monaco said his 14-year-old son, who started experiencing symptoms Friday, has had his case of E. coli confirmed by a hospital.

"It's very unfortunate, and I'd like to know how the beef got contaminated," Monaco said. "If it's traceable to contaminated beef, I'm mad at the person that provided the beef. There's no way for the Scouts to have known they had bad beef."

This week, about 700 Scouts eager to enjoy Goshen's swimming, kayaking, rifle shooting and sailing were sent home after Scout officials made the call to close. Those Scouts included Vanya Perlis, 16, of University Park, who is trying to become an Eagle Scout.

Perlis made the four-hour drive to Goshen on Sunday with his dad and waited an additional two hours upon arriving, only to be told the camp would be closed until further notice.

"It was disappointing," said Perlis, who went to the National Capital Area Council Headquarters yesterday to get literature on how to complete merit badges at home, having missed out on camp. "I think they made the right decision, but they should have told us earlier."

Lambert said Scout officials are working to see whether some of the Scouts who were slated to arrive this week could attend other camps in the region.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company