State Health Department officials allowed a Locust Grove restaurant to stay open temporarily — even after confirming six of eight initial food poisoning victims had eaten its food, internal documents show. That decision may have resulted in additional people getting sick. Health Department officials admitted last week there is no set threshold in such cases for closing a restaurant suspected of being the source of an outbreak. The August outbreak ultimately proved to be the nation's largest of a rare strain of E. coli. One person died, 72 were hospitalized and 241 others got sick before the outbreak was contained. “Obviously, with an outbreak this large in scope, there will be lessons learned that we can apply to future outbreak investigations,” Health Department spokeswoman Leslea Bennet-Webb said. Health Department officials were dispatched to northeastern Oklahoma the night of Aug. 22 in response to multiple reports of food poisoning. E-mail records show that by the next day, health officials determined that three of four sick people interviewed had eaten at the Country Cottage restaurant. By Aug. 24, it was six out of eight. Still, they held off in notifying the public or ordering the restaurant to close. “We do not have enough info at the current time to implicate this establishment as the likely source,” one health official wrote in an e-mail just after noon Aug. 24. “This may leak out to the media today, though.” One or more of the E. coli victims ate food prepared by the Country Cottage on Aug. 24, Health Department officials confirmed last week. Bennet-Webb said health officials acted quickly. E-mails obtained through an open records request indicate several health officials worked late Friday and throughout the weekend in hopes of identifying the bacteria and the outbreak's source. “Just because you hear anecdotally about people eating there, that doesn't necessarily mean there's enough to prove” that the Country Cottage was the source of the outbreak, Bennet-Webb said. Closed voluntarily Documents show health officials let the owners close voluntarily Aug. 26. Officials discussed going to court if the owner turned uncooperative or moved from shock to the “anger phase” and decided to reopen. The Health Department first publicly mentioned the Country Cottage as a possible contamination source Aug. 25, saying in a prepared release that “a large number of persons who became ill” had eaten there. That date was a Monday, the restaurant's regular day to be closed. The investigation ultimately showed that every person who became ill had eaten food prepared by Country Cottage, but no single food item has been identified as the source, Bennet-Webb said. The restaurant hasn't reopened. Contributing: Staff Writer John David Sutter
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E. coli outbreak by the numbers Total known cases: 314 In-patient hospitalizations: 72 Patients who required dialysis for renal failure: 17 Deaths: One People interviewed: 1,843 Victims who ate food provided by Country Cottage in Locust Grove: Every known case State and county health workers involved in response and/or inquiry: At least 135