Salmonella breaks out among children aboard Shenandoah

Uncertainty remains regarding the cases.

The schooner Shenandoah had a salmonella outbreak among the children aboard. — Rich Saltzberg

During a Tisbury board of health meeting on Tuesday, assistant health agent Catherine Blake updated the board about the salmonella outbreak that occurred aboard the Shenandoah, a schooner that holds FUEL’s youth voyage programs. Tisbury health agent Maura Valley advised the board about this issue during the previous meeting, according to Blake.

“I think what it came down to was that there were approximately 11 students that got salmonella out of a trip that had 22 kids on it,” Blake said, adding that the duration of the trip was from June 27 to July 2, and she was not “made aware” of the situation until around July 8. “I spoke with Casey [Blum] from FUEL, got copies of their menu, where the food was sourced, the food handling practices, who was their certified food protection manager, which once we got a little more involved in it, I came to find out they did not have a food protection manager on board the boat.”

FUEL conducts its voyages on the Shenandoah. 

Ian Ridgeway, one of the co-founders of FUEL, said this salmonella outbreak was the first in over 50,000 meals that were served on the Shenandoah. He said this “was certainly an isolated incident,” and something that’s taken seriously. Ridgeway added that FUEL heard about children getting symptoms after the trip was over at about the same time as the board. 

“The well-being of children is at the core of our mission, and the health and safety of our program participants is our top priority,” Ridgeway said. He told The Times all of the families with children involved in the outbreak have been notified by FUEL about the incident.

Ridgeway said FUEL is working with the health board to collect as much information as possible, and to make precautionary measures to avoid outbreaks like this in the future. Unfortunately, since several vendors were used to serve the food on the schooner, it is difficult to pinpoint where the salmonella was from. “We may never know conclusively what the source was,” Ridgeway said. 

Blum told The Times there were three staff members who were U.S. Coast Guard certified food handlers and two staff members who were ServSafe certified on allergens. She also clarified that the staff member who is a ServSafe certified food manager was doing the orders on land. 

By the time Blake was able to do an inspection of the schooner, there were two people on board who had gotten certified as food protection managers. However, the food could not be tested, since it was all thrown out, so Blake requested that the water be tested. The test has not come back yet.

“There’s nothing on the boat between trips, so I spent a lot of time with Casey talking about their practices and protocols,” Blake said. “It’s really just a guess whether it was a sanitation practice or it was something undercooked.”

Blake emphasized that FUEL’s people have been cooperative with her inspection, including requests for the menu that was used. She has also been in touch with the state’s Department of Public Health, since children were being tested for salmonella, although not as many as she thought should have been. 

“Sort of halfway through all of this, the people at the hospital just said, ‘Oh, they have salmonella,’ but didn’t test them, and I think for us, the board of health, it’s simply better if we have accurate numbers when we have a situation like that,” she said. 

After Blake gave her update to the board, Valley made a clarification about the number of children who were infected by salmonella. 

“There were three confirmed cases, but there were reportedly 11 kids total that got sick,” Valley said. “But there were only three that tested positive because, I believe, only three were tested before the hospital said, ‘We’re not going to test, we’re going to assume.’”

“That’s odd,” board vice chair Malcolm Boyd remarked. 

Board member Michael Loberg said it would be important to follow up with the testing to really know what happened, to avoid similar incidents in the future. Blake said “without guessing,” she could not be sure about the cause of the outbreak. 

“I was pretty adamant with their practices, and really sort of drove home the fact this was really an unacceptable situation, and kids were poisoned,” Blake said. “I’m sure that they’re as upset about this situation as we are. So I’m hoping and praying that we got what needed to be handled and that they never have a problem like this again, because it was really unfortunate. I spoke with probably half the parents, and they were of course, and understandably, upset. We’re lucky it wasn’t worse.” 

Martha’s Vineyard Hospital communications specialist Marissa Lefebvre told The Times the first group of students were tested and were confirmed to have been infected by salmonella. For ailments like salmonella infections, it can be handled as a group infection. Particularly for this case, all of the ill students were on the same schooner.

“At that point, [doctors] are able to determine that anyone else who has symptoms from the boat can be treated for salmonella,” Lefebvre said. “They can receive the care that they need from their primary care providers.”