Ritter Declares State Of Emergency In Alamosa

Flushing Out Alamosa's Water System Expected To Take Weeks

Gov. Bill Ritter declared a state of emergency in Alamosa in the wake of an outbreak of salmonella directly linked to the town's tap water.

The governor's executive order will free up to $300,000 in funds from the Disaster Emergency Fund to pay for the response effort and activates the National Guard.

Ritter also said late Friday he plans to travel to Alamosa Saturday to meet with health and city officials and help with water distribution.

There are 138 people with confirmed or suspected cases of salmonella, said Dr. Ned Calonge, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health. Seven people remain hospitalized. The ill range in age from infants to those over 80 years old, Calonge said.

The earliest the city water system could be flushed is Tuesday, and disinfecting it and making sure it is safe could take at least a week, James Martin, executive director of the state health department said Friday.

"This is an unprecedented event for us," said Martin.

Health officials said tests confirm that the municipal water system is the source of the outbreak.

Alamosa's Water System

Alamosa, a community of 10,000 about 160 miles south of Denver, gets its water from a deep well system. Since water is pure from the aquifer, it is not chlorinated.

The city had been working to switch to a chlorinated system, but the salmonella outbreak is speeding up the city's timetable, Calonge said.

Investigators are working to determine how the system was contaminated. Possibilities include a compromise in a storage tank or cross-contamination with a sewage line, Calonge said.

The outbreak has affected business for many restaurants, who were told to toss any produce washed or misted with city water if it was going to be served raw, and to stop serving ice or soda fountain drinks made with city water. They also could not wash dishes with city water.

Denver Water, Aurora and Fort Collins are all helping with a plan to flush the water system in Alamosa and set up a temporary treatment system until that Southern Colorado city can build its own.

Colorado has never faced a salmonella outbreak tied to drinking water but Riverside, Calif., had a similar situation in the 1960s.

Residents Ordered To Use Bottled Water

Residents are being told to use bottled water until the system could be cleared.

More than four dozen companies have come forward to help ship water to Alamosa. Town officials estimate they'll need about 9,000 gallons a day.

About 45 businesses are providing enough bottled water to keep residents supplied for several days, in some cases for free, for drinking, brushing teeth, washing dishes, making ice, cooking, drinking and making baby formula, said Hans Kallam, director of the state Division of Emergency Management.

"Well, so far we've got a lot of donations. But what we don't know is how long it's really going to take to install the purification system, to flush the system and then validate that the water is clean," said Kallam.

Bulk water is also available from East Alamosa, which is not connected to the city system.

Residents may at times have to buy their own bottled water, but anyone who needs help will get it, state officials said.

"No one's going to go without water in Alamosa during this emergency," Martin said.

However state officials were still looking for donors who could provide disposable plates and utensils and hand sanitizers, Martin said.

Boiling tap water will kill bacteria to make it safe for use, but health officials warned that no one should use even boiled tap water once the flush of the water system begins.

People can use tap water to bathe, as long as they are careful not to ingest it, officials said.

Free bottled water is being handed out to residents at several sites through the town. Residents can also bring containers to fill with safe water. Residents were limited to one gallon per person per day. They could buy more at stores.

The Office of Emergency Management was called in Thursday to resolve Alamosa's water issues. It is the largest case the agency has been involved in this year, a spokesman said. State emergency management officials are coordinating deliveries of bottled water.

Salmonella Symptoms

Waterborne salmonella outbreaks are fairly rare, state health officials said. The bacteria are typically spread by food, he said.

Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach pain. Victims typically recover on their own, but the elderly, infants and people with impaired immune systems may require treatment. Untreated, salmonella can cause death in vulnerable victims, the health department said.

Individuals experiencing diarrhea for two days or more, bloody diarrhea, diarrhea with fever, stomach pain or other concerns, should call their doctor. Salmonella symptoms usually begin about one to three days after exposure and usually last four to seven days, health officials said.

Mrs. Rivera's Kitchen, a downtown Alamosa restaurant, closed Wednesday when authorities issued the bottled water advisory, Manager Timothy Rivera said.

"It takes a lot of manpower for all this stuff. We have to boil water for everything, to wash dishes," he said. "We have to have bottled water, we have to have ice. There's lots of things to take into consideration."

Authorities said the first salmonella victim began showing symptoms around March 8, and state health officials became aware of the outbreak Friday. Officials tested city water on Monday, and the results showing bacteria in the water system came back Wednesday.

Under the bottled water order:

  • At home, use bottled water for cooking, drinking, brushing teeth, making ice, washing dishes and for adding to any food especially for the preparation of baby formula.
  • Home-style/domestic dishwashing machines are adequate for sanitizing if the heat drying cycle is applied.
  • Bathing and showering in the water should present no problems for healthy individuals. Exercise caution not to ingest water during such activities.
  • No commercial food preparation should be done unless approved by the local public health agency.
  • Consider using prepared food from an alternative approved source.
  • Use only prepackaged foods that do not require any additional preparation other than heating in its original container.
  • Frequently wash hands and apply hand sanitizer after washing.
  • Do not touch food with bare hands. Use disposable gloves.
  • Use frozen/canned produce.
  • Purchase packaged potable ice.
  • Do not use water to wash plates, cups and utensils. Use only single-service utensils, such as paper plates, napkins, cups, plastic spoons, forks and knives.

    Additional Resources:

    • Information about salmonella outbreak is available at the CO-HELP line 1-877-462-2911.
    • Alamosa residents with any questions about the bottled water order can call the Department of Public Health and Environment at 1-877-462-2911 or go to CityofAlamosa.org.

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