The Connecticut Department of Public Health declined to provide the locations where two swimmers were infected with a deadly bacteria while swimming in the Long Island Sound off Connecticut.
Two people between the ages of 60 and 80 were infected in July with vibrio vulnificus, commonly known as “flesh-eating bacteria.” The two swimmers had open wounds and were infected in separate locations, according to the department. One later died.
CT Examiner requested records under the Freedom of Information Act to identify where the swimmers may have been infected, but the department’s spokesperson Chris Boyle said the department was not releasing that information.
According to Russell Blair, director of education and communications for the Freedom of Information Commission, the department can withhold for reasons of confidentiality the records of investigations of certain diseases — including botulism, West Nile virus, Monkey Pox, and COVID.
Vibrio vulnificus infections are relatively rare, with about 100 to 200 cases each year in the U.S. People with liver disease, cancer or weakened immune systems, or who swim with open wounds, are more likely to contract the infection.
But infections are serious. Called vibriosis, the condition can kill the flesh around infected wounds and often requires intensive care or amputation. And about 1 in 5 people die from infection, sometimes within a day or two of becoming sick, according to the CDC.
New York officials said one person died from vibrio vulnificus infection in Suffolk County on Long Island, and that death is still under investigation.
Beaches aren’t tested for vibrio
Vibrio bacteria are naturally occurring, but are present in higher concentrations in the summer when the salt water in the Long Island Sound is warmer, and filter-feeding shellfish, like oysters, can concentrate vibrio in their flesh when it’s present in the water.
While local and state health departments routinely test water at beaches for bacteria, they don’t test for vibrio bacteria – neither the deadly vibrio vulnificus or the more common but less severe vibrio parahaemolyticus.
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection spokesperson Will Healey said the state tests only for Enterococcus bacteria in the four saltwater state beaches, and E. Coli in inland swimming areas Samples sent to the Department of Public Health by regional and municipal health officials follow the same methods, he said.
CT Examiner contacted the 16 health departments along the Connecticut shoreline to ask if they had any reports of vibrio infections. Seven departments responded that they had not recorded an infection: the Connecticut River Area Health District, which includes Clinton and Old Saybrook, and local health departments in Madison, Stratford, Bridgeport, Fairfield, Darien and Greenwich. The remaining 9 departments did not respond in time for publication.
The Department of Public Health has advised the public against eating raw or undercooked oysters and shellfish, though no illnesses have been linked to Connecticut shellfish. Darien Health Director David Knauf said people who are out clamming and oystering in the Sound should follow the same guidelines as commercial shellfishing – placing harvested shellfish immediately on ice.
Swimmers can reduce the chance of infection, according to a departmental release, by staying out of salt or brackish water if they have a wound, including wading at the beach. Swimmers are also advised to cover any wounds with a waterproof bandage when in contact with salt or brackish water, marine life, or raw or undercooked seafood, and to wash any cuts thoroughly with soap and water.
“When I was a kid, the word was, if you have a cut, go in saltwater, it’s the best thing for you,” Knauf said. “But that’s no longer the case.”
Officials say Long Island Sound shellfish are safe to eat
The Connecticut Department of Agriculture Bureau of Aquaculture routinely tests shellfish in commercial shellfish beds in Connecticut, but despite recent media reports, water is not commonly tested for vibrio.
Department of Agriculture spokesperson Rebecca Murphy explained that the department tests shellfish tissue, not water, because studies have shown that the presence of vibrio in the water is not correlated with vibrio in shellfish tissue. Murphy said the department tests shellfish for both kinds of vibrio at least monthly from July to September when concentrations of the bacteria are typically the highest.
The department has never recorded a case of deadly vibrio vulnificus associated with Connecticut shellfish.
The last major outbreak in the Northeast of vibrio parahaemolyticus in 2013 included 28 cases in Connecticut. Three people were hospitalized, but none died as a result of the infections. All but 7 reported eating raw shellfish in the week before they became sick.
In 2014, the Department of Agriculture adopted new procedures for controlling vibrio in Connecticut shellfish, including requiring rapid cooling and icing of oysters during harvest. There has not been an outbreak in Connecticut since, according to department officials.
Rare infections could become more common
Vibrio vulnificus infections can be deadly, but they are rare, with 100 to 200 cases across the U.S. each year. In Connecticut, there were seven cases between 2010 and 2019. The last person to die from an infection in the state was in 2019.
But in 2020 alone, there were five cases in Connecticut. And as waters along the Northeast coast grow warmer, infections from the bacteria that thrives in warm, brackish water could become more common in the region.
A study from researchers in the U.K. and Spain published in Scientific Reports in March found that infections of vibrio vulnificus have increased eightfold and moved further north along the East Coast from 1988 to 2018.
During the 1980s, cases were rare north of Georgia, but by 2018 they were regularly reported as far north as Philadelphia. The researchers projected that infections will continue to spread across the coastal Northeast as waters warm.
Dr. Ulysses Wu, an infectious disease specialist with Hartford Healthcare, told CT Examiner that increased water temperatures have allowed the bacteria to grow more in northern waters.
“With the warming of the earth, [the infections] are actually starting to creep north — especially in the oysters, where the oysters serve as a filter for this bacteria,” he said. “They were typically only seen in the Gulf Coast. Now we’re seeing them in Maryland, in the Chesapeake Bay … as the earth warms up, this is going to cause this bacteria to proliferate.”