Bellingham Applebee's stays closed amid norovirus concern

Health department has received 56 complaints

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 12, 2014 

Applebee's closed

Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive in Bellingham Wednesday morning, Feb. 12, 2014. The restaurant closed for several days when employees were sickened by a suspected norovirus outbreak.

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Applebee's restaurant on East Sunset Drive was still closed Wednesday, Feb. 12, as more stringent measures were put in place to combat a suspected norovirus outbreak.

Norovirus is highly contagious and causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

It's not known when the Whatcom County Health Department will allow the Bellingham restaurant to reopen.

Meanwhile, the health department has received 56 complaints from people who said they were sickened after eating at Applebee's.

"That doesn't mean what they report fits the expected progression of norovirus," said Tom Kunesh, supervisor for the health department's Food and Living Environment Program.

That's because norovirus has an incubation period of 30 to 40 hours, Kunesh said.

A total of 15 Applebee's employees have reported becoming ill - most of them on Thursday, Feb. 6, and Friday, Feb. 7.

The health department first closed the restaurant Friday morning, after inspectors heard about gastrointestinal illness among workers.

County officials allowed the restaurant to reopen around noon Sunday after a 48-hour closure to help stop the spread of the virus. Other measures included extensive cleaning and sterilization of the restaurant, throwing away food, requiring ill workers to stay home for at least 48 hours, and screening employees before they could come back to work.

But they closed it again Tuesday, Feb. 11, when another two employees became ill.

The health department is requiring the restaurant to take similar measures - but now they're tougher.

Sick workers must now stay home 72 hours after they've recovered from their illness, and there will be more extensive sterilizing and cleaning that includes emptying shelves before cleaning - even if they may not have been contaminated.

"And closer observation by the health department to assure these infection control measures are completed," Kunesh said.

Meanwhile, the health department is continuing to study complaints that have come in about Applebee's.

"Those complaints are being investigated, but we have no summary yet of how many appear to be at least epidemiologically linked to the restaurant. Hopefully, that will come with time," Kunesh said.

Health officials also are investigating 10 complaints made in recent days by patrons who reported falling ill after eating at other restaurants.

They'll be looking for connections, Kunesh said, but Applebee's is the only one that has been closed.

Kunesh has said the health department might never know what caused the cluster at Applebee's, adding that gastrointestinal illness had been circulating in the community in recent weeks.

STOP THE SPREAD

Tom Kunesh, of the Whatcom County Health Department, is reminding people to take steps to prevent the spread of norovirus.

"If you're sick, you can be the source of the next outbreak," he said, noting that gastrointestinal illness has been circulating in the community in the past two weeks - before the closure of the Applebee's in Bellingham over a suspected norovirus outbreak.

To help stop the spread, he said people who are ill with vomiting and diarrhea should:

-- Stay home. Avoid contact with other people until at least 48 hours after full recovery.

-- 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.

Norovirus is difficult to combat because it can spread easily through contact with infected people, surfaces or food.

Additional information is online at cdc.gov/norovirus and at doh.wa.gov (type "norovirus" into the search window).

Reach Kie Relyea at 360-715-2234 or kie.relyea@bellinghamherald.com .

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