According to press reports, three people in Boone County have confirmed cases of E. coli infection, and public health officials are awaiting results of lab tests on two other patients to confirm whether they also have the bacteria.

“We are doing thorough food-borne investigations as we always do,” said Geni Alexander, spokeswoman for the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services. She said there was no evidence that a particular location or food was linked to the confirmed and “suspect” cases.

“We found no commonality between those five people” who reported suspected cases of E. coli since Oct. 26, Alexander said. The fifth case was reported earlier today.

She said health department staffers, including epidemiologist Sarah Rainey, had interviewed all five people in an effort to determine the source of the disease transmission.

“At this point, there’s no way we can say, ‘It’s this,’” Alexander said. Because no common link has been established among the reported cases, the health department was not ready to call the illness “an outbreak.”

Alexander did not provide details on the age or sex of the patients.

“All five sought medical care,” Alexander said. “Two of the five cases required hospitalization.”

E. coli is a common kind of bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals and people. Most strains are harmless; however, one dangerous strain contaminates food or water with a powerful toxin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Alexander said the bacteria is typically food-borne and often is transmitted via contaminated fecal matter. The best defense against the bacteria is to cook meat thoroughly, wash fruits and vegetables and to have good hand washing hygiene.

“We want to encourage people to practice the same food safety that we always encourage,” she said. “But if they experience severe diarrhea, severe abdominal pain and vomiting, they should seek medical attention.”

Alexander said the two confirmed and three suspected cases of E. coli is an increase from what the health department normally sees, but even a single case gets staff mobilized to find the source.

“We investigate any food-borne illness,” she said.