FARGO – Authorities are investigating an outbreak of mystery illness that sickened more than 100 inmates at the Cass County Jail overnight Tuesday, the second major outbreak in the past four years.
The first inmates started reporting mild symptoms like upset stomachs and diarrhea, said Cass County Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Briggeman.
By 6 a.m. Tuesday, 110 of the jail's 282 inmates had reported the same symptoms.
A county kitchen inspector made a site visit to the jail kitchen early Tuesday morning to try to determine if the illness was food-borne, said Capt. Andy Frobig, Cass County's jail administrator.
Fargo-Cass Public Health officials haven't called yet for testing the "dead man's trays," samples of meals frozen and saved in case of illness, but jail officials have taken those trays out of their usual rotation and are keeping them on standby in the event they need to be tested, Frobig said.
For now, health officials are waiting for results of stool samples taken from some of the inmates in an attempt to pin down the source of the outbreak of sickness.
So far, jail officials have been able to treat the sickened inmates on site, and many were reporting significant improvement by Tuesday afternoon, Frobig said. No inmates were hospitalized.
"It's not as bad as it seems," he said. "It's not like everybody's throwing up all over themselves."
The 282 inmates aren't a record-high population count for the facility, which hit an all-time high of 332 on Nov. 13.
Before Tuesday, the most-recent outbreak of illness at the Cass County Jail was in November 2011, when the state Department of Health investigated what caused 90 percent of inmates to get sick. Authorities never confirmed the cause, though they suspect it might be clostridium perfringens, a common bacterial cause of food poisoning.
While people who ate at the jail on Nov. 27, 2011, were almost 21 times more likely to get sick than those who didn't, clostridium perfringens found inside the sick inmates wasn't found in the food that was most likely the source, the chili macaroni served that day.
However, the limited sample amount of chili mac and the length of time it was frozen might have helped explain why clostridium perfringens couldn't be found, according to a report on the incident.
An inmate working in the kitchen at the time claimed he was asked to thaw 40-pound blocks of ground turkey at room temperature, a flagrant food safety violation, but jail officials disputed the claim, the report says.
Clostridium perfringens causes about 1 million cases of illness per year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says. It is often found on raw meat and poultry.
Clay County Jail Administrator Julie Savat, has worked at the Moorhead jail for 24 years, and she said the facility has never experienced any significant outbreaks of illness.
Frobig said Tuesday the jail didn't have to quarantine any inmates. No intake, release and visitation schedules were affected.
He said two jail visitors called the jail to report feeling ill, but so far no staff members reported feeling ill.
"You never know if there's some sort of flu bug going around," he said.