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After 60 become ill, Health Department investigates possible norovirus in Spring Hill

SPRING HILL — For Bob and Julia James, it was a typical Sunday dinner with three friends at one of their favorite Spring Hill restaurants. They both ordered a fish entree and took a trip to the salad bar.

But a few hours later, the couple began feeling queasy.

Antacids didn't help. Nothing could quell the violent vomiting and diarrhea that followed for the next two days, they said. In addition, two of the three people they dined with that evening also got sick.

Ten days after the meal that sickened them, the Jameses say they are still weak and have only been able to eat small meals.

"It really knocked us down," Julia James, 73, said Wednesday. "Neither one of us has ever been this sick."

Hernando County Health Department spokeswoman Ann-Gayl Ellis said at least 60 people have complained of a severe gastrointestinal illness, many of whom ate at the same mom-and-pop restaurant on U.S. 19 between March 6 and March 11.

Ellis would not name the restaurant because the matter is still under investigation, but said nearly all of the complaints were linked to the same restaurant. The Times is withholding the name of the restaurant as well.

A joint inspection by Ellis' agency and the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses Florida restaurants, found only minimal violations pertaining to food preparation, service and storage. Such violations normally are not cause to shut down a restaurant, Ellis said.

Based on the similarities of the symptoms, the investigation is centering around a possible contamination by a food-borne norovirus, which can be transferred by food, water and from person to person.

Ellis said that stool samples were collected from customers and restaurant employees and sent to a Tampa laboratory. The tests should be completed within the next few days.

Ellis said the agency did not want to name the restaurant during the investigation because the illness has not be positively linked to the restaurant or any of its employees.

"It could be a crazy, coincidental thing," she said.

While not identifying the specific restaurant may leave the dining public suspicious of conditions at all Spring Hill eateries, the Health Department noted precautions people can take to avoid becoming ill.

These steps include washing their hands frequently; carefully washing fruits and vegetables; and cooking food thoroughly; cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces after an episode of illness; and removing and washing clothing or linens that may be contaminated with a virus.

Bob James believes that the problem may involve the restaurant's salad bar. Of the four people who dined with him and his wife, the only person who didn't get sick was the one who didn't eat salad, he said. "I don't know what else it could be," said James, 76.

Ellis said that her agency has not been able to determine whether any food was the source of the virus.

Julia James said that the restaurant has been a favorite dining spot, and that they typically eat there a couple of times each month.

Although she called the restaurant to let them know what had happened, she has yet to get a return call from the owners.

As for now, she has no plans to ever return.

"From what we went through, who could blame us?" James said. "Even if they were to offer free food, I don't think I could do it."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or lneill@sptimes.com.

After 60 become ill, Health Department investigates possible norovirus in Spring Hill 03/16/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 6:34pm]
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