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STATE PROBE OF E. COLI OUTBREAK RAISES QUESTIONS

The new measures taken by state Health Commissioner Antonia Novello to protect public water supplies at county fairgrounds are justified, and she may also be right to suggest the need for new regulations to increase the Department of Health's power in this area. But it's not clear whether the ongoing Department of Health investigation into the E. coli outbreak at Washington County Fair -- which has claimed two lives and sickened hundreds -- will really establish what went wrong. . . .

For while weather conditions were likely part of the reason why a well at the fair became contaminated with E. coli, that is not the whole story. Drought followed by a rainstorm is hardly an unusual weather pattern in the summer. . . . It seems likely that there were problems relating to the engineering or driving of three fairly recent wells, and that one major part of the problem is that the wells were too close to a cow barn. . . .

. . . If the fair ignored the DOH's advice, and failed to keep it informed, and made other errors (perhaps including the handling of manure), then it (and/or its contractors) bears the main responsibility for what happened.

Still, there is the question of what more the DOH could have done. For example, why didn't anyone from DOH check to see where the fair ended up putting the new wells? Why were there no checks of conditions (such as manure handling) in the vicinity of the wells while the fair was going on? . . .

If the fair was less than fully cooperative with the DOH, the agency should have discovered that, and been spurred to more vigilance on behalf of the public health. If the fair was fully cooperative, then new extensions of DOH power aren't very relevant.

This is not a matter of looking for a scapegoat. But the question remains: Did the Health Department do enough?

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