BELLINGHAM - A suspected outbreak of norovirus forced the Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive to close over the weekend for extensive cleaning.
The highly contagious virus causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
The Bellingham restaurant was closed Friday, Feb. 7, by the Whatcom County Health Department after inspectors heard about gastrointestinal illness among workers. It reopened around noon Sunday.
"The restaurant was fully cooperative. Since then, there's no evidence of transmission and we have taken these extraordinary measures that are intended to prevent further spread," said Tom Kunesh, supervisor for the health department's Food and Living Environment Program.
Applebee's spokesman Dan Smith said the closure was done "out of an abundance of caution."
"Our franchisee closed the restaurant Friday to thoroughly clean and disinfect the facility, as well as dispose of all menus and prepared food, prior to re-opening the restaurant Sunday," Smith said.
"Our franchisee is committed to the health and welfare of their guests and team members and has taken proactive, voluntary steps to ensure the safety of the restaurant," he added.
On Friday morning, a manager at Applebee's told Kunesh that a number of employees were sent home after saying they felt sick or had called in sick Thursday evening and Friday morning.
"We decided that there was an outbreak going on among staff that we did not understand. We didn't have it under control, and so we ordered the restaurant to close," Kunesh said of the early part of the investigation and closure that started Friday morning.
Ten to 15 employees would be ill in all, including at least one manager, host, dishwasher and several cooks. The Applebee's in Bellingham has about 55 workers.
It was unknown how many restaurant-goers may have been sickened before the closure; Kunesh said the health department received a total of eight complaints, including four Monday.
Kunesh said he didn't know what caused the illnesses when he ordered the closure Friday morning but was preparing for a worst-case scenario by reacting as if it were norovirus.
Based on the symptoms, the incubation period, and reports of secondary transmission as household members who came into contact with those who were sickened became ill themselves later, he said Monday that "this outbreak has characteristics of a norovirus outbreak."
"It's a bug that transmits very easily," Kunesh said, adding that the illness can come on suddenly.
"You're fine and then all of a sudden you're not fine," he said.
In the United States, norovirus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis, and can be especially serious for the elderly and the very young, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Norovirus can spread easily through contact with infected people, surfaces or food.
Kunesh said norovirus has been circulating in the community and that the health department might never know what caused the outbreak at the restaurant.
To stop the spread, the health department ordered Applebee's to close for 48 hours, which is the window when an infected person could transmit the illness. The last known onset of employee illness was Friday morning.
Applebee's also had to:
-- Throw out all food, including condiments and garnishes, that wasn't going to be cooked thoroughly.
-- Order all sick employees to stay home for at least 48 hours after they recovered from their illness. (If a household member became ill, workers had to stay home for at least 48 hours after their recovery.)
-- Clean and sanitize pots, pans, utensils and everything of the sort at least twice.
-- Clean and sanitize all hard surfaces.
-- Steam-clean upholstered surfaces at least twice.
-- Throw away napkins, to-go containers, and similar things if they had been opened.
"It's a very difficult organism to control," Kunesh said. "We don't know that's what we're dealing with, but there's evidence consistent with that and we're responding as if we're dealing with norovirus."
Employees were allowed back in the restaurant Sunday morning to prepare food, provided they hadn't been sick or had recovered from their illness for at least 48 hours.
The health department also required additional cleaning and sanitizing at the end of the day, which includes using a strong solution of bleach and water on all exposed surfaces in the kitchen and public areas in the restaurant.
Applebee's also must immediately report if employees become ill while at the restaurant.
If that happens, the restaurant will immediately shut down again, Kunesh said.
These additional measures will stay in place through Tuesday, Feb. 11, provided no more cases surface.
STOP THE SPREAD
Tom Kunesh, of the Whatcom County Health Department, wants the community to take steps to prevent the spread of norovirus.
"It appears that this virus is active in our community right now," he said, adding that the health department has received a number of complaints about diarrheal illness that are a little above normal.
To combat transmission, he said people who are ill with vomiting and diarrhea should:
-- Avoid contact with other people until at least 48 hours after they've fully recovered.
"That's because this bug can easily be spread, not just through food but also through casual contact," Kunesh said.
-- Don't cook food for other people until at least 48 hours after complete recovery, which Kunesh described as when those who had been sick feel like themselves again.
-- Don't use cloth towels to dry your hands. Switch to disposable paper towels during the illness.
-- "Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands," Kunesh emphasized.
Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or firstname.lastname@example.org .