The Kern County Public Health Services Department was dealing with an outbreak emergency Wednesday: Six patients said they have been experiencing abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting for a number of days.

On the case were around 30 high schoolers who were tasked with finding the source of the outbreak and later holding a press conference to share the latest information.

Though it might have been a fake scenario, it showed those students exactly what it is that Public Health does and how it serves its community during emergencies.

The department has invited students from Youth Leadership Bakersfield for more than 10 years to participate in an emergency simulation, explained Matt Constantine, director of Public Health Services. The students are bused in, thinking they are going on a tour of the facility, but then they are briefed on an emergency that they need to investigate.

This year it was an E. coli outbreak.

"Although we have some actors in the room who perhaps embellish their role a little bit, it is really what we do when there is a disease outbreak," Constantine said.

Public Health individuals rushed students into their headquarters, shouting, "Let's go, let's go" at them as they were handed white tyvek suits to put on.

To say they were overwhelmed, nervous and fully panicked is a bit of an understatement.

"I didn't know I was going to climb into this today," exclaimed Madhav Raja.

A mix of students — Raja, Emily Beltran, Andrew Jimenez, Isabella Sapien and Kimberly Garcia — were part of strike team No. 1 who had to interview Tom Beckett. Beckett said he was experiencing back pain from a recent back surgery, diarrhea and fever, but did not consume any raw meat or greens the past few days. He did, however, explain to students he picked up vaping CBD oil to help with his back pain, which he does around 20 to 30 times a day.

The students then moved on to the command center where they mapped out all the places their patients had been recently to see if they could find the source of the illness. They came to the conclusion that they had an intestinal disease on their hands that was most active Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. 

Strike team No. 1 members went to Beckett's employer, R & R Wrecking Yard, for additional information and to see if there were any samples they could take to the lab. They found vape products, which the employer confirmed only Beckett used, and a bit of lettuce from Pookie's Fabulous Farms.

Lab results showed Beckett tested negative for E. coli and all of his symptoms were related to vaping. 

Other teams at a press conference announced they found traces of E. coli in lettuce. Ill persons consumed lettuce from Pookie's Fabulous Farms, which was contaminated by water runoffs that were exposed to manure from Nycole's Milking House.

Though the emergency was downplayed and not real, Garcia admitted it was a hectic few hours. "I was like, 'Wait, this is what actually happens,'" she said, adding it was a fun experience to learn more about Public Health Services. 

Gathering all the information to find the source of the outbreak was the hardest part for Beltran, noting their patient wasn't very cooperative in answering their questions. Sapien concurred, but added, "Once we started working together, it was better."

Ema Sasic can be reached at 661-395-7392. Follow her on Twitter: @ema_sasic.

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