Numbers hard to come by in mystery illness

Solid numbers are hard to come by to confirm how many people fell ill after a conference at the Truman Hotel in Jefferson City this week. Estimates range from 20 to 60 people.

Solid numbers are hard to come by to confirm how many people fell ill after a conference at the Truman Hotel in Jefferson City this week. Estimates range from 20 to 60 people.

Members of the Missouri Coroner's and Medical Examiner's Association arrived Tuesday from across the state for their spring training conference. It was supposed to be a memorable event for the chief forensic investigator for Boone and Callaway Counties. Dori Burke was installed as the association's first ever female president. Now, the week will be remembered for something much different.

The trouble began after her first night's stay at the hotel. She started coughing, and then came the headache and high fever. After the evening banquet meal Wednesday night she says she went to bed at about 10 p.m. only to awake at about 2 a.m. with such severe breathing problems that she had to call 9-1-1. Burke suffers from asthma, and statistics show attacks are more prevalent during the early morning hours,

But Burke says in the past 25 years she has never had an attack that a rescue inhaler couldn't handle in a few minutes. This was much different. She was treated at Capital Region Medical Center and returned to the hotel about two hours later. Burke says within minutes of being in her room the symptoms returned and she again called 9-1-1. This time she was hospitalized. Friday evening she remained in the hospital, breathless.

The Saline County Coroner Willie Harlow tells a similar story. He left the conference in the early morning hours Thursday with similar symptoms of coughing, fever and body aches. After being treated at the hospital, he drove home but again became ill. He was at home Friday, still suffering from exhaustion from the ordeal.

Randolph County Coroner Gerald Luntsford stuck it out until the end of the conference, which ended about two hours early Thursday afternoon. He told me he suffered from a cough, fever, chest and muscle pains.

"It was not like any flu I'd ever had before," Luntsford said, who was feeling a bit better Friday evening while resting at home.

Luntsford said before he left the conference, he filled out a questionnaire from a nurse who was gathering information from conference participants. Harlow left before then, but says he spoke with someone from the state health department to report his symptoms.

The source of the illness is still a mystery. Cole County Health Department Director Dr. Marie Peoples says four people were treated at a local hospital for respiratory issues, but the cases do not appear to be related.

Her department spent hours Friday investigating. Peoples says health investigators did not find any food issues or mold at the Truman Hotel, but the investigation is on-going and more tests will be done.

The hotel spent Friday welcoming hundreds of new guests for the bi-annual Elks Lodge state convention. The hotel manager said she would not allow an entire convention to stay this weekend if there was something wrong with the hotel.

But Burke is convinced it was something the hotel that caused her asthma attack and other symptoms. Harlow agreed.

"I think it's just too much of a coincidence," he said, "that nearly 40 people attending the same conference, in the same room, come down with the same symptoms, and so acutely."