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Health Officials Confirm 83 Guests and Employees Sickened by Norovirus
 at Hilton Singer Island Resort, West Palm Beach, Florida;
Source Likely to Remain a Mystery
By Patty Pensa and Dianna Cahn, South Florida Sun-SentinelMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 18, 2008 - RIVIERA BEACH -- Health officials on Thursday confirmed 83 cases of highly contagious norovirus at the Hilton Singer Island Resort but said they likely will never know the source.

"It spreads easily and quickly," said Tim O'Connor, health department spokesman. "We've asked [the hotel] to completely disinfect everything."

Hotel guests and employees first reported the stomach flu-like symptoms on Jan. 10, and lab results confirmed norovirus on Wednesday.

Health officials released details about the outbreak on Thursday. They were called to the hotel on Saturday, when three people went to the Columbia Hospital's emergency department for treatment for the intestinal illness.

As guests complained of symptoms on Saturday, the hotel shut down its kitchen, threw out food and cleaned out the kitchen. Without traces of food, health officials are unable to test where the illness began, O'Connor said.

Noroviruses first spread through fecal matter or vomit. They are passed on while eating contaminated food or liquids, touching contaminated surfaces or having contact with an infected person.

Hotel General Manager Stan Turner suspected the illness was food-borne, but when guests who hadn't eaten at the restaurant also fell sick, hotel officials began to suspect noroviruses.

"We didn't know what we were looking at," Turner said. "If it is food-borne, you know that it's this plate, this salad. But if it's noroviruses, it comes from everywhere, so that's unnerving."

Such illnesses cannot be treated with antibiotics, and people who become ill with it are encouraged to stay home for at least two days. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping usually occur 12 to 48 hours after exposure.

With two weddings booked for Saturday evening, hotel officials closed the kitchen and found an outside caterer for the weddings. The kitchen remained closed for 48 hours until Monday and hotel staff cleaned the entire property.

"It has been a floor-by-floor, room-by-room, surface-by-surface process," Turner said. "We are not resting. We are still cleaning."

The outbreak was the first at a Palm Beach County hotel in recent memory. Norovirus is most common in cruise ships but can occur in any communal living quarters. The last outbreak in the county was in 2006, when about 150 students and staff at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton were infected.

The last reported sickness at the Hilton was Sunday morning. Health officials interviewed 117 of the 1,732 people at the hotel from Jan. 9 through Tuesday. Seventy-seven of those interviewed had norovirus. Another six people were not interviewed but had the illness, which lasts one to three days, O'Connor said.

Not all who were sick ate in the Hilton's restaurant, Coconuts on the Beach. Almost a third of the hotel's 110 employees were sick and many eat there, O'Connor said.

"It's likely the kitchen was part of spreading it, but we can't say that for sure," he said.

The restaurant, though, was cited for 17 violations during a December inspection by the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Included were: food stored on the floor, wiping cloth not stored in sanitizing solution between uses and single-use gloves not changed when damaged or soiled.

The violations were not an "immediate threat to the public," the report said.

News of norovirus at the hotel surprised guests eating at Coconuts on the Beach on Thursday. Todd Reibling, of Lake Park, and Joe Coco, of West Palm Beach, sat at the bar sharing a pizza and swigging beers.

"I come here a lot and I never had a problem," Reibling said. "I guess I would have like to have known."

Coco, who said he'd just come from a job interview, was bit more unnerved.

"I can't afford this right now," he said, eyeing his pizza. But then he took another slice.

The hotel is expected in coming days to disinfect "any place people who had this may have left the virus," from doorknobs and shower heads to bed linens, O'Connor said.

Patty Pensa can be reached at ppensa@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6609.

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Copyright (c) 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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