Investigation of Harford gastroenteritis outbreak continues

With a potential restaurant-related outbreak of gastroenteritis under investigation in Harford County, plus a typical rise of gastrointestinal illnesses during the late winter, residents are being urged to take common-sense measures to reduce the spread of such illnesses.

William Wiseman, spokesman for the Harford County Health Department, confirmed Monday that county health officials and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are conducting a "collaborative investigation" into "what we believe at this time to be a restaurant-associated outbreak of gastroenteritis."

Gastroenteritis, often called stomach flu despite having no direct relation to influenza, is a viral inflammation of the stomach and intestines and can cause stomach aches, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting, according to a page on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Influenza is a respiratory disease.

"The most important precaution is frequent hand-washing," Wiseman emphasized, particularly when preparing and/or eating food.

Wiseman said he could not get into specifics about the source of the gastroenteritis or any of the public locations in the county where it is suspected.

Laboratory tests are still being conducted, and officials are waiting on reports, Wiseman said.

"Until we get those reports, we're still in the process of waiting and watching and following through with what we have," he explained.

Acute gastroenteritis is typically caused by norovirus. There are 19 to 21 million cases of people being sickened in the U.S. every year, along with 56,000 to 71,000 hospital visits and between 570 and 800 deaths, according to the CDC page.

The virus is spread through human contact, and Wiseman noted contact can be made at restaurants through shaking hands or touching items such as doorknobs, counters and flashing devices used to alert diners that their tables are ready.

Wiseman stressed that, for restaurant patrons "the most important thing is, upon entering a restaurant, go to the restroom and wash their hands."

Wiseman said via e-mail Monday the county health department began receiving reports last week from "several individuals" who were "experiencing symptoms of gastrointestinal illness, most having reported eating at one or more restaurants over the previous few days."

He stated that health officials began getting additional reports of illness following the initial media coverage, and officials spoke to people about their "food histories" and collected stool samples to be tested at the state's laboratory. 

"Results of those tests are as yet unavailable but are expected to give us additional information we need to move forward," Wiseman wrote.

He added that the people who health officials spoke to last week "had fully recovered from their illness or reported their illnesses were improving."

Wiseman said gastrointestinal illnesses in general increase during the late winter and early spring, as people have been in close quarters for many months and are in regular physical contact with each other.

"This has been a long winter," he said. "The duration and the intensity of the cold has kept a lot of people inside, and as a result the bugs, when we pick them up, have a tendency to be more easily transmitted to other people through contact."

David Clark, spokesman for Patient First, said Monday their has been an "uptick" in people reporting gastrointestinal illnesses at the urgent care clinics in Harford County during the past two weeks. Patient First operates urgent care clinics in Aberdeen and Bel Air.

Officials with Upper Chesapeake Health, which operates hospitals in Bel Air and Havre de Grace, are monitoring cases of gastrointestinal illnesses that come through their emergency rooms.

"In looking at the report of ER visits from over the weekend, we do see some cases that include either vomiting or diarrhea," Sue Potochney, an infection preventionist said in an e-mail through Upper Chesapeake spokeswoman Martha Mallonee. "It is difficult to ascertain at this time whether these represent an increase from the norm."

Potochney stated that the majority of the people who came in with those symptoms were treated in the hospital emergency department but were not admitted.

"Moving forward, we will continue to monitor this situation, and when necessary, take the appropriate additional steps for infection prevention," she wrote.

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