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21 Sickened at Crowne Plaza-Cabana in Palo Alto, California;
County Health Investigating Cause, Hotel Dclared Safe
By Jason Green, Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 3, 2008 - -- At least 21 people reported being stricken with a diarrheal illness after visiting the Crowne Plaza-Cabana hotel in Palo Alto late last month, according to public health officials.

An investigation into the incident is under way, said Ben Gale, director of the Santa Clara County Department of Environmental Health. But chances are slim that officials will determine the exact type of illness, or even how it was transmitted, since no biological samples were collected from the victims.

"We're still getting reports of illness. It's coming in little dribs and drabs, if you will, as I think information gets out and people realize they were perhaps at the facility," Gale said. "It's getting broader than simply the ... company that was there."

The Cabana's general manager, Mark Hochstatter, declined to discuss the matter on the record, saying only, "In the interest of public safety, we contacted the county health department and nothing conclusive was determined."

A final inspection of the Cabana on Tuesday found corrective action had been taken and that the hotel was violation-free, Gale said.

"It's safe for the public to be there," he said.

Gale said he isn't aware of any similar incidents in the area between June 23 and June 25, the period in which people reported being sick, and the outbreak appears to have been confined to the Cabana. That assessment was based on the quick onset of the illness, which bore similarities to norovirus, and the concentration of people who reported being sick, he said.

Because public health officials have yet to identify the cause, they've put together a program for the hotel to prevent future incidents, including sanitizing walls, floors, ceilings and bathrooms, Gale said. Employees also will undergo a one- to two-hour food handling course and managers will receive training on how to recognize a contagious employee.

According to inspection reports available on the Department of Environmental Health's Web site, the Cabana had two "major" violations between Aug. 22, 2007, and March 5. Both dealt with washing and sanitation.

The same reports also noted minor problems with hand washing as well as food storage and display.

A spokeswoman for the county's Public Health Department said most outbreaks of food-borne illnesses such as norovirus are the product of improper hygiene.

"Almost every single one of these comes back to hand washing," said spokeswoman Joy Alexiou.

E-mail Jason Green at jgreen@dailynewsgroup.com.

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Copyright (c) 2008, Palo Alto Daily News, Calif.

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