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King County monitoring ongoing shigellosis outbreak

Public Health - Seattle & King County reports 117 cases of the bacterial infection shigellosis, mostly among the homeless.

SEATTLE — Public Health - Seattle & King County is monitoring an ongoing outbreak of shigellosis, a bacterial infection that has sent many patients to the hospital.

Public Health said it counted 117 cases since last October. Of those, 84% were among people experiencing homelessness and 62% of patients were hospitalized.

The county said it's hopeful the shigellosis outbreak may be tapering off. As of Monday, they had not identified any new cases among the homeless population in more than two weeks. But the public health authority said it's too soon to know if the outbreak is ending.

Public Health said it’s still searching for the cause of the outbreak. It said infectious diseases spread easily among the homeless when there is a lack of access to clean drinking water, toilets, and handwashing facilities.

Shigella bacteria causes the shigellosis infection. Most people with an infection have diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Symptoms usually begin one to two days after infection. They can last seven days. 

The City of Seattle placed portable sinks and toilets in some neighborhoods to improve hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic, but homeless advocates and some city council members say those are not enough.

The council budgeted $100,000 for handwashing stations similar to those developed by a group called the Clean Hands Collective, but Seattle Public Utilities still has not installed them.

“Where are the handwashing facilities? And why is it taking so long?” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda asked during a hearing earlier this month.

Seattle Public Utilities said it needs to ensure the new stations are accessible, durable, and won't inadvertently spread disease.

“We need to conform to a ton of different regulations and guidelines,” said Mami Hara, general manager of Seattle Public Utilities.

SPU said in a statement, Tuesday, that it is sorting through applications from non-profits interested in developing sink systems and improving hygiene access.

"SPU plans to announce the grant recipients in the next few days and will work with them on any remaining technical and regulatory requirements, including ADA accessibility so that deployment can occur," SPU said.