Church Members Pray After Three Die, 14 Sickened Following Thanksgiving Meal in Antioch

One food-borne illness expert said the most likely culprit is a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, which is often mistaken for the 24-hour flu

Parishioners sent up prayers for the three people who died and the 14 others who were sickened following a Thanksgiving dinner put on by a Brentwood church.

Golden Hills Community Church Senior Pastor Larry Adams said the parish in Brentwood, California has been serving holiday meals for decades and was deeply saddened by the tragic turn at a charitable event that turned accidentally deadly.

"No one's ever gotten sick in more than 30 years," he said. 

Last week's deaths were "more than heartbreaking," Adams said. But in the aftermath, he said, his concern is "not us or our reputation. It's people."

There were still many unanswered questions than answers on Tuesday, a day after Contra Costa County health officials announced that eight people were taken to Sutter Delta Medical Center in Antioch on Friday and Saturday after eating the church-hosted turkey- and stuffing-meal at the American Legion Hall in Antioch.

Health officials initially said five people had been sickened, but that number rose to 14 Tuesday evening. The Contra Costa County Coroner’s office has not yet identified the three who died.

The three people who died came to the event from two assisted living facilities, Minerva’s Place and Minerva’s Place IV, according to the Department of Social Services. No one would speak to a reporter at one of the facilities, but health inspectors were seen walking into one of the residences.

Contra Costa County Public Health Dr. Louise McNitt said at a Monday news conference that there was no concrete evidence yet that a food-borne illness sickened the people, but "that's usually what it is." She said norovirus had been ruled out. A total of 835 people ate the meal.

All the patients ate food from the same holiday event, health officials said Tuesday. Investigators said they were busy collecting biological samples for testing at county and state public health labs.

Adams said he is anxiously awaiting the test results to come back: "First of all, we don't even know that our dinner was the source of the problem. But that doesn't matter because precious people died. So we're concerned about that -- no matter what the source -- which is why we're trying so hard ... to help County Health find the source because if it was from us, we want to fix it. And if it wasn't from us, then we still want to help the people who hurt."

Seattle-based food expert attorney William Marler said he suspects, from what he’s heard and read, that the most likely culprit is a bacteria called Clostridium perfringens, which is often mistaken for the 24-hour flu. The majority of outbreaks are associated with undercooked meats, often cooked in large quantities and which sit out for long periods of time. It’s rarely fatal, but it can be.

“It’s not unusual for just a few people to get sick out of hundreds,” Marler said in an email to NBC Bay Area. “They may have been the only ones that ate the tainted portion or perhaps had underlying health issues that made them more vulnerable.”

Marler said it reminds him of a case in Iowa years ago where only a few people got sick and one died during a Thanksgiving dinner for the elderly.

On Monday, Dr. Marilyn Underwood, environmental health director for Contra Costa County Health Services, said she did not know who was responsible for preparing the food, but they did say some of the food was brought in from other facilities and some was prepared at the hall. She added that after interviewing the food handlers about food safety techniques, "they all sounded very appropriate."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 6 Americans — or 48 million — gets sick every year from food-borne illnesses, commonly referred to as food poisoning.

NBC Bay Area's Stephen Ellison, Sharon Katsuda, Gonzo Rojas and Terry McSweeney  contributed to this report.

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