While the cause of a recent outbreak of salmonella is not yet known - many of those who have presented symptoms of it seem to have one thing in common - attendance at last weekend's Sherman's Last Burning.
The event, hosted by the Covington Lions Club, featured a barbecue cook-off with 36 participants and at least 15 food vendors - including the Lions Club who sold barbecue plates to many attendees.
According to Vernon Goins, public information officer for the state Division of Public Health's East Metro Health District, which includes Newton County, there have been 29 reports of salmonella within the last several days.
Of those reports, four have been confirmed so far as salmonella and three others are pending on the results of stool samples. The vast majority of reports have come from the Covington area Goins said.
Goins emphasized the health investigation had just begun and it would be very difficult to determine the source of the salmonella outbreak as all of the possible sources for the contamination have either been consumed or thrown away. At this point Goins said the department has not yet determined a link to anything.
"It is going to be very difficult to connect it because everything is gone," Goins said. "If this was a restaurant or something that was steady, we would certainly go for samples and try to track it down to specific items."
As Sherman's Last Burning was a non-regulated event, no health permit was required said Goins.
"There is no direct evidence yet other than testimony by people that the Lions Club (food) was the source," Goins said.
Total attendance at the event is estimated at 3,000 by Goins and 5,000 to 10,000 by event organizers.
As all of the food is now gone, Goins said the health department will be unable to determine the source of the outbreak through lab tests. Instead they will have to determine the source through statistical links.
"We think we have a fairly good chance of identifying the food items and narrowing it down," Goins said. "It's going to be an investigation that will take our best efforts."
An epidemiologist for the health department is trying to trace all of the foods sold and consumed at Sherman's Last Burning Goins said.
The barbecue plates sold by the Lion's Club consisted of pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw, bread, chips and sweet tea with ice cubes.
Other food vendors sold dessert items, popcorn shrimp, funnel cakes and other assorted festival foods.
The barbecue cooked by competitors in the cook-off competition was not for sale for public consumption.
Salmonella is a food borne illness, typically carried in food which has either been cooked or frozen and not eaten immediately.
The food sold by the Lion's Club was supplied by BareKnuckles BBQ, a Covington-based competitive barbecue team, who also supplied barbecue plates for sale by the Lion's Club at last year's event.
Jim Stancil, head cook for BareKnuckles BBQ, said that his cooks followed all of the correct temperature guidelines for the cooking of meat. In addition Stancil said food pans were thrown out after a single use and that all food products came from a wholesale market. The meat was cooked in stainless steel cookers as well.
"We take all the safeguards that we can," Stancil said. "We do everything like we're supposed to and follow our guidelines."
Stancil added he has been in touch with the health department and is giving them all the information he can to help them in their investigation.
"We're very concerned about the people who are sick," Stancil said. "We're doing everything we can do so we can find out what this is and nail it down as best as we can."
Stancil said that while he did not eat anything at the festival, he has also recently been feeling ill.
Additionally complicating the investigation is the fact that the symptoms of salmonella took so long to present themselves in people.
Goins said the majority of people reporting symptoms of salmonella have said they ate Lions Club barbecue on Friday night.
"I don't think any of them have said Thursday night or Saturday night," Goins said. "Part of our statistical research will involve who ate what, where and when but it does appear that it was Friday night."
Newton County resident Wayne Pickens, whose 14-year-old daughter tested positive for salmonella, said Wednesday morning that while they both ate Lions Club barbecue Friday night, he still feels fine while she had to go to Newton Medical Center for dehydration.
Goins said the reaction of individuals to a salmonella infection can vary based on their personal health and the length of time before they are treated with antibiotics.
Symptoms brought on by salmonella include diarrhea, fever, vomiting and abdominal cramps. The symptoms typically present themselves six to 72 hours after infection.
Goins advised that anyone suffering from these symptoms who attended Sherman's Last Burning visit a doctor to get checked out.
"Fortunately it is an illness that the vast majority of people will recover from," Goins said. "Some will have less trouble than others, but everyone's going to know that they've contracted it."
Mike Free, president of the Covington Lions Club, said his organization was doing all that it could to assist the health department in its investigation.
"We've given them any and all information to see if we can get to the source," Free said, "We have e-mailed all of our members. We're just really concerned about the people who have been sick."
Free said his organization had no idea where the source of the contamination could have come from but added he didn't think it was the BareKnuckles BBQ.
"They're very professional and very high-tech in terms of temperature control," Free said. "If you had to make me bet, I would bet it's not them. I would bet it's some other source."
Free also commented that the source might be from somewhere else entirely as there were a number of other activities going on last weekend including the Literacy Festival on the Covington Square and the Yellow River Jam in downtown Porterdale.
"We're just absolutely mortified," Free said. "The Lions have been here 55 years in Newton County. We're just shocked that these people are sick. We just want to make sure that we find out so it won't happen again."
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, salmonella infections usually resolve in five to seven days and often do not require treatment unless the individual becomes severely dehydrated or the infection spreads from the intestines.
Those with severe diarrhea may require re-hydration, often with intravenous fluids.