Updated at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 2, 2015
Two months after a norovirus outbreak at Bali Hai restaurant, county health officials have fingered ice as the foodborne source that sickened at least 61 people — including three in a wedding party.
“We’re certain it had something to do with the ice” served at the annual awards banquet of the local Society of Professional Journalists, said county spokesman Michael Workman. “We’re not certain how it got in the ice.”
A 15-page “foodborne disease outbreak report” dated Sept. 28 was filed with the state Department of Public Health. The county’s Epidemiology and Immunization Services Agency said its investigation included a detailed assessment of food preparation methods, food safety and hygiene practices and food employees’ health status.
“Recommendations for norovirus cleaning were made to prevent additional cases,” said the report signed by county environmental health specialists Brad Richardson and Jacklin Mikhail-Fox, along with Bali Hai manager and owner Tom Baumann.
Of 56 Bali Hai employees working July 29, only six were at the SPJ event — a bartender, three servers and two cooks, the report said.
“None reported gastrointestinal illness during the week prior to the event,” the report said. “Two ill food workers (a line cook and a bartender) who did not work at the event were interviewed in detail regarding their job duties, work schedules and illness onset dates/times and durations; none reported working while symptomatic.”
The line cook was out sick from July 27 to July 30; he returned to work July 31, the report said. “The bartender became ill one day after the event on July 30. None submitted stool samples to SDCPHL for norovirus testing.”
In its own report to the San Diego SPJ, the county said 84 of the 172 people at the July 29 banquet returned surveys on what they ate and other issues. Fifty were sickened by the norovirus type GI.1. (Eight others also reported getting ill.)
Three diners elsewhere in Bali Hai also got GI.1 — part of a wedding party of 140.
“We have to [classify it as] foodborne,” Workman said, rather than a sick person spreading the gastrointestinal disease.
That Sept. 4 report said, “We did not link any food service workers with the illness,” but Workman on Tuesday told Times of San Diego that “we can’t say yes or no” to whether an employee caused the outbreak.
Workman stressed that Bali Hai remains “rated for high” for hygiene. “Everyone involved — from the people who attended [the banquet] and from the restaurant … did the right thing.”
He said someone — an employee or not — could have contaminated an ice scoop, which led to the spread of the highly contagious pathogen. It has been identified in at least 37 illness outbreaks this year in San Diego County.
At least one woman in the Bali Hai journalist gathering was hospitalized for norovirus.
The county didn’t provide the Sept. 28 report to SPJ officials but answered their questions in detail nearly a month earlier.
The only thing worse than a pack of journalists getting sick might have been “having a bunch of lawyers — personal-injury lawyers” fall ill, Workman said.
Matt Hall of The San Diego Union-Tribune, president of the local SPJ chapter, said the board of his 108-member group was thankful the county responded as best it could.
“We understood early on that these investigations are difficult and that the county might not identify a definite source of the illness,” Hall said, “so we’re pleased this was classified as a probable foodborne outbreak.
“We don’t know definitively whether ice is to blame, but we now know this fact: Other Bali Hai diners fell ill and three of the guests at a wedding apart from our function tested positive for norovirus.”
In fact, one attendee* said in an SPJ posting: “I remember distinctly going up to the bar where there was a jug of water and getting a glass from there. It contained no ice. I neither ate, drank or sucked on any ice at the dinner, yet I got sick.”
Asked whether the restaurant or health department tried to contact people outside the SPJ party who ate at the Bali Hai that night, the county responded: “No, the Epidemiology Program did not contact those who ate there that night as regular restaurant guests. We investigated only those who reported illness to us.”
Hall said the SPJ board won’t decide on whether to return to Bali Hai for next summer’s banquet for a while, “but is looking forward to it because we will celebrate outstanding journalism and our award as national SPJ chapter of the year.”
On Sept. 18, at the national group’s Orlando national convention, San Diego’s professional chapter was named the best large chapter of the year — from those with more than 75 members. Nationwide, SPJ has about 60 professional chapters (and dozens more campus chapters).
(Hall was re-elected to the national board of SPJ, where he served as Region 11 director.)
Groups continue to book the same outdoor patio area where the SPJ party was held on Shelter Island.
One is the Republican Party of San Diego County, whose $150-a-person “Salute to Republican Elected Officials” is Friday night at the “beautiful open-air Hawaiian Village Pavilion.”
County spokesman Workman saluted Bali Hai management.
“The restaurant had a great hygiene procedure, really good,” he said. “They are on the up-and-up on what they do and what they teach their employees. The employees have been there a long time. So they get it.”
But Workman acknowleged the county’s findings can be “squishy” and “it’s not an exact science.”
But: “We’re confident it’s been taken care of.”
*Correction: Times of San Diego originally attributed this comment to SPJ President Matt Hall. In fact, it came from someone else. We apologize for the error.