Reporter Mac McLean has been all over this story for weeks, but still has not found the cause of the outbreak that has sickened 17 and killed one. According to Mac, health officials in Northeast Tennessee and Western Virginia report that 18 people came down with a potentially fatal Escherichia coli infection between May 8 and June 2.

Officials with the Virginia Department of Health have found some “similarities” between a potentially fatal strain of Escherichia coli bacteria that’s sickened Western Virginia residents over the past six weeks and one that’s affected people in Northeast Tennessee. “We are seeing some similarities in the strains from Virginia and Tennessee,” VDH spokesman Robert Parker said in an e-mail to the Bristol Herald Courier. “But nothing to link them in terms of transmission … no common source has been identified.”

On June 5, a 2-year-old girl from Dryden, Va., was rushed to the Johnson City Medical Center’s Pediatric Intensive Care unit. She and her brother were exhibiting symptoms common to a severe E. coli infection, according to a report from the Washington County, Tenn., Sheriff’s Office. The girl died at the hospital, according to the report, while her brother was rushed to the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. He has since been released and is back at home in Lee County.

Immediately after the girl’s death, Parker issued a statement announcing that his department confirmed an E. coli infection had sickened two children from Southwest Virginia who were related to each other. Lab results showed they were infected by E. coli O157:H7, which is the most common STEC strain in the U.S., and responsible for almost half of the illnesses caused by E. coli infections each year. Parker said the bacteria responsible for three other infections from Western Virginia had the same DNA fingerprint as the bacteria that sickened the two children from Dryden.

Last week, the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office announced it had identified 13 people who had come down with an E. coli infection between May 15 and June 2. Two were from Sullivan County, Health Office Director David Kirshke said, while the remaining 11 were scattered among a seven-county area. Three of these people were infected by an E coli O157 strain that Parker said was genetically similar to the E. coli O157 strain that was making people sick in Western Virginia. Kirshke said earlier that his office found that eight of these patients were sickened by a non-O157 STEC strain – such as E. Coli O103 or E. coli O169 – and he was waiting on the test results from the final two cases.

“The investigation continues,” Parker said.