Update: San Diego County health officials have confirmed Norovirus G1 in all three specimens tested, according to a spokesman. Officials haven’t identified the original source of the virus, but it’s “not looking like food at all,” said county spokesman Michael Workman.
Lee-Ann Jaykus, a food safety expert at North Carolina State University, is a leading researcher on norovirus and called the San Diego outbreak “interesting.”
“There are several genogroups of norovirus, two of which are responsible for the vast majority of human illnesses: GI and GII,” she told Times of San Diego. “GI causes about 10-15 percent of those illnesses, GII about 85-90 percent.”
She said symptoms are pretty much the same, regardless of genogroup.
The “epidemic” norovirus strain is of the GII.4 genotype and usually responsible for about 70 percent of illnesses, Jaykus said. “So the fact that this was caused by a GI strain simply means that it was not caused by the epidemic strain, but rather by a less common strain.”
Original story from Aug. 3, 2015:
At least 61 people fell ill last week after a Shelter island journalism banquet, authorities say, with three guests being sent to the hospital. One woman was still hospitalized Monday night, a friend said.
And like the victims, Larry Baumann is anxiously awaiting the results of a county health inspection.
“Food safety is a constant [concern],” he told Times of San Diego. “It’s disconcerting to be in that kind of spotlight, that negativeness.”
Baumann and his wife, Susie — daughter of the famed Tom Ham — have managed the Bali Hai since 1974 and have never seen an outbreak like this before at their restaurant, he said.
“We’ve worked hard for years and years and years,” he said. “Never would anybody take a call lightly that somebody got food poisoning.”
According to county spokesman Michael Workman, first reports of illness were consistent with a possible norovirus outbreak — usually spread person-to-person but also possibly foodborne. Other viruses can cause the symptoms as well, which included vomiting, fever and diarrhea.
He said the restaurant was inspected Friday and about 30 people who reported symptoms had been interviewed as of noon Monday.
One patient was still at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla with what may be a viral infection, according to a guest at the dinner.
“They did a complete norovirus scrubdown,” he said of the 60-year-old Bali Hai. “There is no reason anyone should be concerned about eating there.”
In the next day or two, he said, the county will have a better fix on the cause of the illness — which might have come from a banquet guest or someone who prepared the food before it even got to Bali Hai.
Outside the patio banquet area, no other Bali Hai customers got sick, Workman said.
Workman said the restaurant was asked to raise the sanitizer level, which was done Friday.
Bali Hai has an A grade (and 93 score) from county health officials — but three times in the past five months it was found to have “major” violations during inspections. Twice the county found a problem with holding temperatures. Once it didn’t have shellfish tags in the right place.
On Friday, one of the sickened journalists — SPJ President Matthew T. Hall of The San Diego Union-Tribune — wrote many of the 170 attendees: “My apologies to everyone who is sick and to everyone else whose news report was disrupted today.”
On Monday, Hall couldn’t say whether SPJ would return to the Bali Hai next year, writing: “Our focus is on people’s health and the investigation right now.”
San Diego Journalist of the Year Jeff McDonald, a U-T colleague, said he didn’t get sick. “I didn’t eat much, so maybe that was it,” he told Times of San Diego.
Guests dined from self-serve trays at a buffet line, choosing from entrees such as jerk-spiced and pineapple-rum-glaze pork loin, teriyaki roasted chicken and blackened salmon, plus a variety of other warm dishes and salads.
In a phone interview, owner Baumann said temperature problems result in food being tossed immediately. But he took issue with the shellfish tag violation — more of a paperwork issue. (He said tags were “on the premises.”)
But food-safety attorney Bill Marler of Seattle said the tag violation could be a sign of a restaurant “cutting corners.”
“They’re called a critical violation for a reason,” Marler said as he prepared to leave Los Angeles for Minnesota. Such violations should have raised management concerns, he said.
Marler has been involved in food-poisoning cases since the 1993 Jack In The Box E. coli outbreak that killed four children and sickened more than 700 people eating undercooked hamburgers.
He said his firm also handled a 2003 case of E. coli bacteria at Pat & Oscar’s restaurants in San Diego County and a 2006 Shigella bacteria case at Filiberto’s in San Diego. His firm has won judgments or settlements totaling more than $600 million, he said.
Bali Hai has a legal problem if the norovirus is traced to an ill worker, Marler said. “Hopefully, they have insurance.”
Baumann said he did.
Lawyer Marler said the Bali Hai outbreak might be considered medium-sized, since just in the past two months he’s seen a salmonella outbreak at a Boise, Idaho, delicatessen that sickened 300, a North Carolina BBQ incident that left 200 ill and a Kenosha, Wisconsin, outbreak that sickened 75.
County officials counted 628 people sick in 36 norovirus incidents San Diego County in fiscal 2014-15.
“The number of people ill in these outbreaks ranged from 2 to 71, with the average being 17 cases,” Workman said, with 11 of 36 outbreaks classified as foodborne.
“Norovirus can be found in the environment, and outbreaks can be caused by a number of reasons,” he said. “Often we see them in places where a large number of people congregate. It can be spread easily person-to-person if even just one person comes to an event and is ill; they can spread it by hand shaking or contaminating food or other surfaces and other people can become ill.”
Bali Hai took all precautionary cleaning and sanitizing procedures the county recommends amid a possible norovirus outbreak, he said.
Workman was busy Monday taking calls from reporters on the issue, but food-safety lawyer Marler found the news ironic.
“I sort of chuckled to myself,” Marler said. “I’m not sure the public is very sympathetic to journalists getting sick.”
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