Pensacola community leader died from Vibrio infection. What you should know about the bacteria

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to remove a statement that was incorrectly attributed to Jackson's family.

The Tuesday morning death of Studer Community Institute Director of Business Engagement Rodney Jackson shocked the Pensacola community when it was determined he had died from a bacterial infection from eating a raw oyster.

But experts say the bacteria, Vibrio, is easier to contract than one might expect if precautions are not taken.

University of West Florida professor Dr. Robert "Wes" Farr, a physician with specialties in areas such as infectious disease, said Vibrio infections are increasingly common in the warmer months. There are different varieties of Vibrio, but Farr said the most common tends to be Vibrio parahaemolyticus, which is a common source of foodborne disease from raw fish and oyster consumption.

"Serious infection is rare, but the risk is still there," he said.

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Rodney Jackson
Rodney Jackson

Jackson purchased the oysters on Aug. 3 from Maria's Fresh Seafood Market.

It was not until the weekend came that his seemingly mild symptoms started to worsen and raise alarms for his wife, Patricia.

Per his wife's advice, he contemplated checking into West Florida Hospital, but decided against it after seeing the wait times, according to Gillette.

It was when he started having trouble breathing Sunday that he was transported to Ascension Sacred Heart ICU where Vibrio bacteria was later detected in Jackson's blood and determined as the cause of his death, according to Gillette.

Seafood vendors such as Maria's are required by the state to undergo strict procedures in ensuring oysters are kept at a safe temperature, as well as mandated to hang signs indicating patrons consume oysters raw on an "at your own risk" basis.

"Everything goes through steps," said Ray Boyer, a manager for 21 years at Maria's Seafood. "Oysters (are) just one of those items that (are) pretty much known you have to make sure you take the proper steps."

From the moment the oysters are pulled up from the water, they must be immediately put on ice, transferred to a refrigerated truck and temperature checked upon arrival to the market, according to Boyer. Oysters are good to consume for about 10 days, however, the temperature they are stored at once purchased is a responsibility of the consumer.

"After that, it's out of our hands," Boyer said.

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Boyer said he maintains a level of trust with his vendors, only consistently purchasing a wild-caught Louisiana oyster and a local Pensacola farmed oyster. Both are harvested in premium zones of the Gulf, he said.

Boyer said purchasing oysters from reputable sources is important to ensure the harvesters are following regulation by tagging and labeling oysters appropriately, along with being able to provide traceable records of harvest locations, dates and temperatures.

"We do trust all of our oyster handlers, we've been doing business with them for a while," Boyer said.

It is unknown by Jackson's family which variety of oyster he purchased, according to Gillette. No information has been disclosed on how the oysters were stored or prepared after purchase.

Keeping cool is a necessity for raw oyster consumption

Oysters should stay below 40 degrees to be considered safe for consumption when eaten raw, Boyer said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise even an acidic squeeze of lemon overtop is not enough to kill budding bacteria.

A seemingly healthy oyster can be riddled with bacteria but show no sign of contamination, according to Farr, the physician and UWF professor.

The chances of falling ill from consuming an oyster are rare, but the chances increase significantly with underlying conditions such as liver disease, diabetes or cancer. They can also be especially risky to those on medications that reduce stomach acid, a reason why Farr chooses not to consume them himself.

Oftentimes, the illness can be cured using an antibiotic to kill off the infection, he said.

There are still several people who are affected each year, according to the Florida Department of Public Health.

The Florida Department of Public Health released a statement July 1 stating Vibrio vulnificus has picked up in Escambia County, which could lead to vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

Health officials warn that people can be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, bacteria that can cause severe and life-threatening illness, when they eat raw shellfish, particularly oysters.
Health officials warn that people can be infected with Vibrio vulnificus, bacteria that can cause severe and life-threatening illness, when they eat raw shellfish, particularly oysters.

In Escambia County, there have been seven cases reported from 2020 to 2022, one of which resulted in death. In Santa Rosa county, four cases were reported over the past three years, one of which resulted in death.

In Florida as a whole, 509 cases of Vibrio vulnificus have been reported since 2008, with 131, or about 26% of those cases, resulting in death.

Summer remains a particularly notable time for cases of the infection, according to Farr, due to the heat of the water, especially in more shallow areas.

Boyer said this used to be a particular issue years ago, when urban legend stated only to consume oysters in the months that include an "R," meaning September through April. This was designed to show that the warmer months — May, June, July and August — were too prone to bacteria.

However, Boyer said the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has stepped in to implement more formal regulations for when and how oysters can be harvested, chilled and stored.

Because of these strict regulations, Boyer said he feels confident in saying all of the bases are covered by the time a customer makes their purchase.

Some of the common mistakes and false assumptions Boyer said customers sometimes make is that a cooler of ice will be enough to keep oysters cold for several days.

Although the oyster may feel cool to the touch, there is a good chance that the temperature has risen above 40 degrees as the ice melts, putting them in unsafe territory for consumption.

The safest way to consume an oyster, Farr concluded, is simply to cook it, killing any existing bacteria.

For more information, visit the Florida Department of Health's website.

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: A Pensacola community leader has died from Vibrio bacteria in oyster