HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania departments of Health and Conservation and Natural Resources have announced that the lake at Cowans Gap State Park, Fulton County, has been closed for recreational use until further notice. The park remains open for camping and other activities.
The decision to close the lake, effective 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 9, came after six confirmed and three probable illnesses of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (E. coli O157:H7) recently were identified in persons who reported swimming in the lake between July 12 and July 31. Swimming in the lake prior to becoming ill was the only factor in common among all the ill individuals.
All activities where visitors come in contact with the 42-acre lake have been temporarily suspended, including swimming, fishing, kayaking, canoeing and other boating.
“Ensuring the health and safety of state park visitors is our main concern,” said Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Richard J. Allan. “While it is very unfortunate that we must close a major recreational aspect of this beautiful park, we must take all precautions to ensure the lake water is safe.”
The secretary noted regular testing of the lake waters throughout the summer indicated no danger to swimmers. Since 2006, only one sampling resulted in a one-day closing of the lake’s two beaches.
The lake is being closed as a precautionary measure to protect the public’s health and safety until a thorough investigation can be completed.
“We take these cases very seriously,” said Department of Health Secretary Dr. Eli Avila. “Investigating how the outbreak occurred is a top priority for us.”
Each of the reported victims said they used the lake sometime between July 12 and July 31. The ill persons range in age from two to 49 years, and all but one are from the south-central region of Pennsylvania. One Maryland resident also was sickened.
There is no current evidence that potable water in the park has played any role in the E. coli O157:H7 problem.
E. coli O157:H7 most often causes diarrheal illness that can often be bloody and accompanied by cramps, and onset is typically one to seven days after exposure.
Illness is most common in children, but all ages can be affected. Hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, is a complication of E. coli O157:H7 infections which can result in anemia and kidney damage. HUS is found in five to 15 percent of people with E. coli O157:H7 infection. While most E. coli O157:H7 infections are linked to contaminated food, waterborne outbreaks also have occurred in the past.
The Department of Health recommends that anyone who has visited the park and experiences diarrhea should contact their health care provider, their local health department or the Pennsylvania Department of Health at 1-877-PA-HEALTH (877-724-3258).
Surrounded by Buchanan State Forest, Cowans Gap State Park draws more than 440,000 visitors annually. The lake, large campground, rustic cabins and many hiking trails are prime attractions.
Details on Pennsylvania’s 117 state parks can be found at www.dcnr.state.pa.us (select State Parks).