Hurricane Ian slammed into Florida in late September as a category 4 storm, bringing widespread flooding. Those toxic floodwaters appear to be spreading Vibrio vulnificus, a flesh-eating bacteria that turns fatal for many people unlucky enough to contract it.
The symptoms of these infections include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and open lesions on the skin, according to the CDC. Without adequate treatment, people die within just a few days after being infected. People can be exposed to the bacteria by touching or consuming raw seafood, but it can also come from warm, brackish water.
“Sewage spills in coastal waters, like those caused by Hurricane Ian, may increase bacteria levels. People with open wounds, cuts, or scratches can be exposed to Vibrio vulnificus through direct contact with sea water or brackish water,” Lee County department spokeswoman Tammy Soliz said in a press release. “Vibrio vulnificus has the potential to cause severe illness or death.”
According to the state health department’s website, Florida has seen 65 confirmed cases of flesh-eating bacteria infections so far this year, with 11 deaths. That’s a huge increase over previous years: 2020 and 2021 saw only 34 cases and 36 cases, respectively. Lee County alone has confirmed a whopping 29 cases and four deaths so far this year. The Florida Department of Health hasn’t noted how many of these cases came after the hurricane, though it says that 2022's numbers are an “abnormal increase due to the impacts of Hurricane Ian.”
Lee County includes Fort Myers, which was especially impacted by the storm. Homes, boats, and cars were all inundated under murky water. Residents who were unable to evacuate and the emergency responders who helped many of them were in contact with what could be highly contaminated water.
The last time the state had a spike in flesh-eating bacteria cases was after Hurricane Irma in 2017. Florida saw 50 confirmed cases and 11 deaths that year.