Memorial Regional Hospital employees often tell patients about the benefits of drinking a good tall glass of water, but right now, they’re warning them of the risks.
Broward County’s boil water order has been extended through Saturday, and the signs over the hospital’s water fountains, coffee machines and ice-makers warning people not to use them will stay until it’s lifted, said Memorial Healthcare System spokeswoman Marla Oxenhandler.
For now, the hospital is breaking into its emergency water supply.
“It looks like what we see in hurricane mode,” said Chief Nursing Officer Maggie Hansen. “Big pallets of gallons of bottled water are stacked in the hallways.”
The boil water order was first issued Wednesday morning, after a routine monthly test found E. coli bacteria in one of eight county wells that supplies water to Hallandale Beach, Hollywood, Dania Beach, West Park, Pembroke Park, Pembroke Pines, Miramar, parts of Davie and unincorporated South Broward County.
More than 87,000 water customers are affected.
The county and various municipalities scrambled to alert residents and businesses, instructing them to use bottled or boiled water for drinking, cooking, washing fruits and vegetables, making ice, doing dishes and washing their hands.
Don’t plan on cleaning dishes in the dishwasher or using tap water in the coffee machine — neither piece of equipment gets hot enough to sterilize the water.
Even if you have a home water filter, the tap water should still be boiled for a full minute, or bottled water should be used.
And don’t think Fido is immune: Water given to pets should also be boiled or come from a bottle.
Bathing or showering is fine as long as the water stays out of your eyes and mouth. But be careful with young children that they don’t swallow water in the tub.
But if you missed the warnings and brushed your teeth with tap, you’re probably still safe, said county Water and Wastewater operations director Terry Karda.
“I would expect nobody to be sick,” he said. “Not from this.”
The contaminated well, five feet under the ground in Brian Piccolo Park in Cooper City, was filled with as-yet-untreated groundwater, said Karda.
It probably picked up the bacterium when heavy rains flooded parts of Broward County last Friday.
But that water would’ve been pumped through a multi-phase cleaning and filtering process in the county’s treatment plants, and then disinfected with chlorine, before it ever reached the faucets of a local home or business.
“If there’s no E. coli in the distillation system, then there’s no E. coli going into people’s homes,” Karda said. “Treated samples have all tested absent for E. coli. We’re really trying to be on the safe side, to make sure there’s not any chance our customers could be affected.”
Karda doesn’t live in an area under the boil water order, but if he did, he said, he’d still avoid tap until the order is lifted, just to be extra safe.
One of the reasons the boil-water order has dragged on so long, says Karda, is the bureaucracy surrounding getting it lifted.
For the tainted well to be cleared for use again, it will have to test clean two days in a row.
Each test takes 18 to 24 hours. The county first realized the water problem Tuesday evening but couldn’t do anything about it that night.
Then the well flunked a sanitation follow-up test Wednesday, so when the county got the results back Thursday, it decided to extend the order through Saturday.
“We’re going to have to rehab it or disinfect [the well],” Karda said. “There might be a cracked casing” or something else structural in that well that contributed to the problem.
Karda will know for sure after the health department inspects it Tuesday, but fixing the problem could take anywhere from three days to a month or so depending on what it is, he said.
For now, Karda said, the county has shut down the tainted well and isolated it from the rest of the water treatment system to avoid cross-contamination.
With the tainted well cut off, Broward County will very likely lift the boil water warning Saturday and just rely on the other seven wells.
But E. coli is one nasty critter, and the Florida Department of Health in Broward County is still urging people to be careful until the county gives the all-clear to go back to tap.
The bacterium lives in the lower gut, where it’s usually benign.
But if the wrong strain of it gets into someone’s body, said health department spokeswoman Dr. Paula Thaqi, it can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, headaches and abdominal cramps.
It incubates anywhere from 6 hours to 10 days before it starts wreaking havoc, and can be especially dangerous for children, older people and people whose immune systems are already weak, she said.