More than 100 students at Red Bay Primary School fell ill after the school’s lunch period on Wednesday afternoon, according to education officials.
As of Thursday afternoon, the cause was not yet known, and the Department of Environmental Health was investigating, officials said.
According to a Ministry of Education press release on Wednesday, “several” students and teachers who became ill had symptoms that included vomiting and cramps.
The release also said that the same food served to children at lunchtime was also served to Lighthouse School and George Town Primary School students, but there were no reports of illness at those schools.
Department of Environmental Health investigators also discovered a gas leak from an ice machine in the serving area at Mary Miller Hall, and they were working to determine what impact, if any, this may have had.
Health Services Authority Acting Medical Officer Samuel Williams Rodriguez said 21 patients from the school were treated at the Cayman Islands Hospital with “mild symptoms” and released Wednesday. He said no patients were treated Thursday.
The food served to Red Bay Primary students is provided by Mise en Place Professional Catering and prepared on site. The company feeds more than 2,000 students in government and private schools daily.
“We can assure all our customers that this is an isolated incident and [it] has not yet even been confirmed to us that it is food-borne,” Mise en Place Managing Director Sean Collins said in a statement Thursday.
Mr. Collins said all six staff members of Mise en Place posted in the Red Bay kitchen also ate lunch and had no symptoms of the illness. He said the company has had an “impeccable safety record” throughout the 13 years it has been producing meals for schoolchildren in Cayman.
Mr. Williams Rodriguez said the Health Services Authority is investigating and monitoring the situation, along with the Department of Environmental Health and other government entities.
Red Bay Primary and Mary Miller Hall, which houses the kitchen and serving areas, were thoroughly cleaned after the students and teachers fell ill, according to the government release, and classes resumed as normal Thursday.
Those areas at Mary Miller Hall were closed Thursday to allow the Department of Environmental Health to conduct their investigations.
Mark Ray, head of Business Services for the Cayman Islands government, said, “We’re not saying it is food related.” He declined to speculate on a cause, as he was waiting for the report from the Department of Environmental Health. He said the department might know the cause by Friday.
“They’re still doing follow-up investigations and reports today, so we don’t know the extent of it,” Mr. Ray said Thursday.
According to a statement on Thursday from Mise en Place’s Mr. Collins, a manager from the catering company was informed around 2 p.m. Wednesday that up to a dozen students at Red Bay Primary had fallen ill. The company was contacted less than an hour later by school principal Vickie Frederick and informed that the number of ill students had increased to 107.
Mr. Williams Rodriguez said that while parents had informed the HSA that more than 100 students had been affected, that number has not been officially confirmed.
Mr. Collins said Mise en Place contacted a Department of Environmental Health representative who was on site and who gathered samples of the two lunch items served, took swabs of kitchen surfaces and of the hands of Mise en Place staff. The company is awaiting the results of these tests.
Mr. Collins said all menu items “were prepared in exactly the same way we have prepared them hundreds, if not thousands, of times before from this location.”
He said 224 chicken tender meals and 30 fried fish meals were served to Red Bay Primary students at Mary Miller Hall on Wednesday. Additional meals were served to Lighthouse School students, also in the same facility but on the other side of a wall from Red Bay students. Meals prepared at the facility were also delivered to George Town Primary School.
Mr. Collins added, “We have had no incidents of food-borne illness from anything we’ve served. We are passionate about our business and we strive every day to maintain a great safety record. All of our food handling staff have the appropriate and current food safety certificates issued from DEH.”
Referring to the report of leaking gas from the ice machine in the serving area of Mary Miller Hall, Mr. Collins said, “We have been advised that the small amount of Freon [gas] being leaked into the environment would not cause symptoms as experienced at Red Bay Primary School yesterday.
Mr. Williams Rodriguez said, “From a medical perspective, it’s unlikely that Freon would cause these type of symptoms.”
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, Freon poisoning typically occurs when individuals intentionally breathe it in. Exposure to high concentration of Freon can cause symptoms including breathing difficulty, throat swelling, pain in the throat, nose, eyes, ears, lips or tongue, severe abdominal pain and vomiting.
Representatives at Red Bay Primary School would not comment while the investigation is under way.