Edge waterpark in Duluth to install new equipment to prevent waterborne illnessPrompted by the cryptosporidiosis outbreak last month, ZMC is making a $100,000 investment at the Edgewater Resort & Water Park to install an ultraviolet water-treatment system that will quickly eliminate harmful micro-organisms and bacteria from the water.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
For the Edgewater Resort & Water Park, it’s been the month from hell. After dozens of possible cases of cryptosporidiosis were traced to the waterpark last month, the costs in lost business and new technology could total a half-million dollars. Staff has been inundated with calls about the waterborne disease that causes flu-like symptoms. They’ve been hit with cancellations and forced to cut employee hours.
Bottom line: The resort has seen a 25 percent drop in bookings and revenues as its critical summer season approaches.
“We hit the panic button at five percent,” said Jon Driscoll, vice president of operation for ZMC Hotels, which owns the Edgewater. “We can’t go on like this.”
They still don’t know how the “Crypto” outbreak happened or how they could have kept it from happening.
“Somebody just might not have washed their hands,” Driscoll said.
At learning that people got sick, they quickly closed the waterpark to give the water a 13-hour super dose of chlorine to remove any Crypto present. It’s a process they’ve repeated weekly, though it’s hard on equipment.
They talked to the media about what happened. They sent out letters to all those who had stayed at the hotel in March — about 25,000 people — to alert them that Crypto had been linked to people who swam at the waterpark in March and offered them two free nights. They listened to every concerned caller and reported possible cases to the health department.
They stepped up efforts to inform pool users of the importance of proper hygiene through signs, flyers and a greeter at the waterpark’s entrance.
“We’ve been in the business a long time,” said Ken Goldfine, CEO of ZMC Hotels. “If I’ve learned anything … it’s that honesty is the best policy. It’s as simple as that. It’s telling people what happened, not trying to cover things up and trying to brush things under the rug.”
Some claims for medical expenses from the Crypto outbreak have come in and were turned over to an insurance adjuster, according to Becca Richards, Edgewater assistant general manager.
Prompted by the outbreak, ZMC is making a $100,000 investment to make sure Crypto doesn’t happen at the waterpark again. Next week it is installing an ultraviolet water-treatment system that will quickly eliminate harmful micro-organisms and bacteria from the water. It disables Crypto in a way that normal levels of chlorine do not.
The UV technology, which is 99.9 percent effective against Crypto, has been available to waterparks for about five years, and many businesses across the country have added the costly systems to further purify their pool water, said Rick Root, president of the World Waterpark Association based in Kansas City. Several states now mandate it in addition to the chlorine and pH requirements.
“It’s one more tool that operators have at their disposal to keep their facilities safe,” Root said.
UV technology wasn’t available to the Edgewater when the waterpark was built in 2005 and goes beyond industry standards. In the Northland, the Duluth YMCA’s recently upgraded pool has the system, which also reduces the unpleasant effects of chlorine and results in cleaner air.
“We could easily lose a half-million dollars on this deal, but the loss of the public trust in us is incalculable,” Goldfine said. “Our integrity in the marketplace is incalculable. And regaining that trust, that’s our issue. That’s what we’re working hard to re-establish. We want to do what we can to earn back the public’s trust.”
22 confirmed cases
As the number of people getting sick grew, Edgewater managers said they were at a loss over what they could have done differently.
“We felt awful for what happened,” said Jesse Hinkemeyer, Edgewater’s general manager.
He and Driscoll say they were doing everything right, meeting or exceeding industry standards:
A high functioning water filtration system. Testing the chlorine and pH levels every two to three hours, more often than required. Directing guests to shower before entering the pool. Requiring babies and toddlers to be in swim diapers that are provided free. Trained and certified lifeguards and staff. Detailed log books. Emergency action plans in place.
Still, people got sick.
Twenty-two people came down with Crypto after swimming at the waterpark, according to the confirmed cases with the state Department of Health as of late last week. Six dozen more cases are unconfirmed.
“It’s not uncommon,” said Trisha Robinson, a state epidemiologist specializing in waterborne diseases. “We see outbreaks at pools and waterparks every year in Minnesota. We see 200 to 300 confirmed cases a year in Minnesota.”
The parasite spreads through the feces of infected people. People are infected by ingesting the contaminated water.
“Crypto can survive even in properly maintained facilities,” Robinson said. “It can happen in any kind of facility as long as an ill swimmer gets in the water.”
The water at the Edgewater waterpark was never tested for Crypto. Water testing methods do exist, but they are not routinely done because of complexities involved in the testing, Robinson said.
“If you didn’t find it, it does not mean it isn’t there,” she said.
Samples are typically sent to a laboratory for testing with a long lag time. And, noted Edgewater’s Richards, it could be in one corner of a pool but not the next. You’d have to test every part of a pool.
The Crypto symptoms of watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, dehydration and sometimes low-grade fever generally last one to two weeks, though the person continues to be infectious for another two weeks.
“The way it gets in (the water) is an ill swimmer goes in the water,” Robinson said. “The best prevention we can have is keeping ill swimmers out of the water. If anybody has been sick with diarrhea — currently or in the last two weeks — then they should not be swimming.”
Besides keeping proper pool chlorination and pH levels to keep pool water safe, it’s an awareness issue for operators, Root said.
“It’s also working with your guests to make sure they’re aware of the challenges, making sure people don’t swim if they’ve been ill,” he said. “It’s teaching your children not to swallow pool water. It’s changing diapers in the bathhouse as opposed to poolside.”
Before the outbreak, Edgewater guests were honor-bound to follow the rules of showering first and using the plastic covered pull-up swim diapers on small children. Since then, a greeter reminds them as they enter and points out where the locker rooms and showers and diaper changing areas are.
However, guests are not told to refrain from using the pool if they have had diarrhea in the previous two weeks nor are they reminded to take bathroom breaks, staff said. Guests weren’t told this before people got sick, either.
The Crypto outbreak — they say the first ever for Edgewater — has left the resort and waterpark with a tarnished image.
“The public perception is we did something wrong,” Hinkemeyer said. “But we were very diligent.”
Edgewater lifeguard Cody Christian says he gets asked a lot if the water is safe and whether they could still get the disease.
“We took the right precautions, so there’s nothing to worry about,” he tells them.
Guests interviewed last week were aware of the last month’s Crypto problem but most weren’t worried.
“I figured this was the safest time to come, because they had the problem,” said Tracy Packingham, who stays at Edgewater with her family once or twice a year. “This is when they’re going to be more cautious.”
Her husband, Dean, said he knew the super chlorine treatment would take care of the problem.
“They wouldn’t be open if there was a problem,” he said.
Alan Meilach of Prior Lake had heard about the Crypto outbreak but still booked a stay for his wife and grandchild.
“I was a little bit worried but not much, because I know they cleaned it out,” he said. “It could happen anywhere, even on a cruise ship.”
But guest Jill Holstad of Bloomer, Wis., admitted she was a little worried. A stay for her family and her sister’s family had been booked before the cases of Crypto made the news.
“We researched it online,” she said. “I called the hotel and talked to them before we came.”
They had allayed her fears. But still, she says, a person wonders.
“We’re not doing anything different, but it’s in the back of your mind,” said Holstad as she watched children play in the waterpark’s activity pool. “I hope they take proper precautions.”
Edgewater officials want the public to know they are.
“We want them to know we are doing everything we can moving forward and more,” Hinkemeyer said.