Multiple people test positive for norovirus, one for E. coli after illness outbreak at zipline tour

Published: Jul. 9, 2018 at 3:46 PM EDT
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In response to a survey sent out by health officials, at least 548 people have reported gastrointestinal illness after visiting CLIMB Works in Gatlinburg since June 15 — and that number is likely a low estimate.

According to Gail Harmon, East Tennessee regional assistant director with the Tennessee Department of Health, 2,901 surveys were sent out to people who booked zip line tours online with CLIMB Works. As of Tuesday morning, 808 people had responded with 548 of those reporting illness.

On Thursday, the Tennessee Department of Health announced that multiple patients tested positive for norovirus. One tested positive for enteropathogenic E. coli.

Of the 808 responses, Harmon said 505 people said they had parties varying in size from two to 30 people, but the surveys did ask how many in the party became sick. It did determine one common denominator though — well water served out of coolers placed along the zip line course.

A spokeswoman with the health department said water testing was conducted, and several samples came back positive for E. coli and total coliforms. Those samples were sent to Nashville for further testing, and officials plan to continue testing like environmental sampling to support the investigation.

“At this time we cannot point to one simple cause of this outbreak,” said TDH Deputy State Epidemiologist John Dunn, DVM, PhD. “Preliminary testing and environmental health assessments indicate the water system at the zipline facility may have contributed to the outbreak; however, there are likely other sources involved in the spread of the illnesses, including contaminated surfaces and person-to-person transmission."

Those sick are reporting symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. Health officials said that anyone whose visited CLIMB Works and is experiencing any symptoms associated with gastrointestinal illness should contact their health care provider.

CLIMB Works Smoky Mountains told WVLT News on Monday that 80 to 100 people have called the business to report symptoms of gastrointestinal illness after visiting its zip line attraction in Gatlinburg.

Harmon said multiple complaints about sickness at the zip line course prompted the investigation to begin after July 4.

According to a recent review on CLIMB Works' Facebook page, Emily Oney said she went on a tour Saturday, June 7, and by the next afternoon she was sick, along with two children ages 9 and 11 years old and five others. Oney wrote that she believed contaminated coolers of water along the course were the culprit.

"Vomiting, diarrhea, tiredness -- terrible sickness," she told WVLT's Robert Grant. "I was on my death bed."

Oney says her entire family came down with the illness.

"It was taking us out one by one," she said.

Other visitors commented on her review, saying they had become sick after tours on dates as far back as June 16. One person said 10 of the 12 people in their group were even bedridden, and several com-mentors said they had become so sick they took trips to the emergency room.

The tour itself was fine. We had a group of 8 for the mountaintop tour on Saturday morning. By Sunday afternoon, 6/8...

Posted by Emily Oney on Tuesday, July 3, 2018

CLIMB said it is complying completely and has began serving bottled water since health officials told them to stop using well water. Manger Brian Turley said a new water filtration system was installed Tuesday.

CLIMB Works responded to several of the comments on Facebook, saying on Saturday they "feel awful if we had any part in anyone getting sick."

"We did contact the Health Department to try to pinpoint if it was water contamination or the contagious stomach bug that has been affecting the area this summer," CLIMB Works wrote.

The business said it wants to do its best to "make it right" for anyone who experienced sickness after their visits and is offering full refunds.