SHELBY, N.C. -- The deadly E. coli outbreak at the Cleveland County Fairgrounds now points to a petting zoo as the potential source and location of the problem, health officials said Tuesday.
By Wednesday afternoon, the number of people infected with E. coli rose to 61 from 46 a day earlier. Of those 61 people, 38 are children.
Most of the people who are ill live in Cleveland County (33 victims). Three people remain in a Gaston County hospital. There are 11 victims from Gaston County and 10 from Lincoln County.
Investigators say for every one person who got sick, they are questioning three who didn't to find the differences. The answers lean toward the petting zoo although the findings are not conclusive, said Cleveland County Health Director Dorothea Wyant.
"We've been told that some of the kids were getting some of that hay that was underneath the animals," Wyant said Tuesday. "The animals were kicking the hay out into the walkway and they were picking up the hay that was underneath the animals and feeding the animals."
That hay could have had feces on it.
Wyant said some people brought strollers into the petting zoo when they weren't supposed to and feces could have gotten onto the strollers and then the kids riding inside them.
Some people who got sick did not go to the petting zoo or eat from food vendors, which is another possibility investigators are looking into.
Wyant says it's possible they got sick because muddy feces washed into other parts of the fairgrounds due to lots of rain the week of the fair.
"They get it on their feet, get it on strollers and take it to other areas of the fair," Wyant said.
Wyant said in one case it appears a child let an animal take a bite of a carrot, then bit the carrot himself and became infected.
The ground where those animals were has been dug up and turned over. Fairground workers covered those areas with a disinfectant and also planted grass. The spots will be roped off and won't be used again for months.
E.coli symptoms can show up 10 days after exposure. Wednesday marks the tenth day since the end of the fair.
Two-year-old Gage Lefevers of Gaston County died from the E. coli infection.
Lefervers' father was recently hired by the Gastonia Police Department. A spokesperson says there has been a huge outpouring of support for the family.
“We just want everyone to know how much he loved life and always had a smile on his face,” said his mother, Jessica Lefevers, in a statement. “Everyone that came into contact with him always fell in love with him and those big blue eyes. He loved watching sports with his father and he always enjoyed every minute of every day.”