Local health officials said they hope a norovirus outbreak in Buena Vista that left approximately 20 people ill in mid-November will serve as a reminder to area restaurants and food providers to be extra cautious.
Chaffee County Public Health received complaints from five people saying they were ill after eating food from the Subway in Buena Vista, according to a restaurant inspection report.
Lab tests on samples from the five individuals all tested positive for norovirus — an extremely contagious virus that can cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Public Health estimates roughly 20 people, mostly students at Buena Vista High School, might have fallen ill in the outbreak.
An investigation by Chaffee County Environmental Health Manager Victor Crocco, who declined to name the restaurant, found that one employee reported feeling ill the day after the illness was originally reported.
Subway manager Brandon Alexander said he did not recall any of the employees being sick around the time of the outbreak.
Crocco’s investigation led him to conclude a sick employee, and not a larger food contamination, most likely caused the contamination.
Public Health has not discovered any additional cases other than the 20 in November, said Susan Ellis, public health director.
Crocco, based on advice from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) officials, did not close the restaurant or penalize it.
“We felt the public was safe,” he said.
The restaurant was cited for three noncritical items, according to the inspection report, but the items cited likely did not lead to the outbreak, Crocco said.
The fact that the outbreak happened at Subway, which is very clean and has not had any serious issues in the past, highlights the need for restaurants to be extra cautious, Crocco said.
“If it can happen to them, it can happen to anyone,” he said.
Alexander said he doesn’t remember anything like this happening in his 8 years at the restaurant.
Subway is taking extra precautions, including washing all the surfaces in the dining area with bleach, but the outbreak should serve as an example of how difficult it is to prevent contamination from the virus, he said.
Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the U.S., according to the CDC. While an infected person can shed billions of norovirus particles, it only takes contact with as few as 18 particles to become infected.
“It’s extremely contagious,” Ellis said.
CDPHE reported 32 suspected norovirus outbreaks in 17 Colorado counties in November, Ellis said.
Since the virus has been in the community, it’s increasingly important that people, especially employees at restaurants, school cafeterias and other food service jobs, remember to wash their hands and properly clean the establishment with bleach, she said. Anyone who feels ill should stay home and avoid preparing food 2-3 days after recovering.