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Health Officials: Boston College Illness Outbreak is Norovirus

City health experts and Chipotle Mexican Grill agreed Tuesday that as many as 80 mostly Boston College students sickened over the weekend likely were victims of the “vomiting disease” known as norovirus and not victims of the more serious nine-state E. coli O26 outbreak.

Members of the Boston College men’s basketball team were among the first sickened, with as many as 10 players experiencing symptoms before last Sunday’s game. If the BC Eagles team has enough recovered players to take the court against the nationally ranked Providence College Friars at Rhode Island’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center on Wednesday night, Chipotle executives in Denver will probably still breathe a sigh of relief.

BClogo_406x250Coming as it did on the heels of the multi-state E. coli O26 outbreak, which has been associated with Chipotle restaurants, BC students and athletics feared they, too, were victims of the more serious foodborne disease. That possibility hammered Chipotle’s stock for a second day, knocking it down another $9.63 per share, or down 1.75 percent, during regular trading hours to $542.12. But that was better than volatile overnight trading that saw its stock price go as low at $514 per share.

It was good news for Chipotle on Tuesday when Bay State health officials said that BC students who dined at a single Chipotle outlet in Boston were likely norovirus victims. The alternative would have been a much-expanded E. coli O26 outbreak and a dangerous pathogen, not a fast-moving virus.

Officials said that, “After receiving reports of multiple cases of gastrointestinal illness among patrons who ate at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Cleveland Circle, the Boston Public Health Commission, the City of Boston Inspectional Services Department, and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health launched an investigation to determine the cause and the nature of the illness. Initial laboratory testing has indicated the presence of norovirus.”

The health officials said there were “65 known case reports that include Boston College residents, students, and non-BC patrons, but the information is constantly evolving. The restaurant is temporarily closed while ISD and BPHC continue investigations.” The BC administration’s case count was 80.

Health experts urged people “to take proper precautions to prevent the spread of illness, which include: washing your hands regularly, avoiding close contact or sharing food and drink with others who might be ill, and staying home if you are ill.”

Boston restaurant inspectors found the Chipotle unit in question failed to keep cooked chicken used in burritos, tacos, and other offerings at a sufficiently high temperature and also discovered an employee who was working while showing signs of the illness.

Here is some Q&A information Boston health experts are providing students and others who are down with norovirus:

Noroviruses are a group of viruses that cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Norovirus is often called by other names, such as viral gastroenteritis, stomach flu and food poisoning. It is not related to the flu (influenza), which usually causes respiratory illness.

Who gets norovirus? 

Anyone can develop this disease. It occurs only in humans and is found worldwide. It is very easy to spread and is very common due to the ease of transmission.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms usually begin 1 to 2 days after exposure to the virus, but can occur as early as 12 hours after exposure. Common symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. Sometimes people may develop low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and tiredness. The illness may come on suddenly, and it is possible to have norovirus infection many times. Sometimes people with norovirus have no symptoms at all, but can still pass the infection on to others.

How long does it last?

Most people recover in 1 to 2 days. Sometimes infected people are unable to drink enough fluid to replace what they are losing from diarrhea and vomiting and can become dehydrated. This is more likely to occur in very young children, the elderly, or those with certain other health problems.

How does it spread?

Noroviruses are found in the stool (feces) or vomit of infected people. Noroviruses are transferred to food, water, or surfaces by the hands of infected people who have not washed adequately after using the bathroom.

People become infected with norovirus by:

  • Eating food or drinking liquids contaminated by an infected person.
  • Eating uncooked shellfish that has been harvested from contaminated waters.
  • Touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching their mouth or eating without washing their hands first.

What should I do if I have these symptoms?

Drink plenty of fluids so you do not become dehydrated, wash your hands often, and contact your healthcare provider if you have any concerns (especially if you do not recover quickly or are at risk for dehydration).

How long can an infected person spread norovirus?

Most people can spread the virus from the time they feel sick until 3 days after they get better. Good hand-washing is important to prevent spread to others.

Should I stay home from work or school?

Yes. To prevent spreading the illness to others, a sick person should stay home until he or she has completely recovered and all symptoms have resolved. Under public health regulations, food handlers and healthcare workers must stay away from work for 72 hours after their symptoms have resolved.

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