Number of people sickened at oyster event at Ocean City restaurant rises

The number of people who got sick after attending a beer and oyster festival at Fager’s Island Restaurant in Ocean City earlier this month has risen to 164, but the cause of the outbreak is still unknown.

Officials with The Maryland Department of Health said Tuesday that they will continue to work with the Worcester County Health Department to determine what led to the illnesses. Patrons who attended the event on Nov. 4 suffered from symptoms of gastroenteritis, or inflammation of the lining of the intestines. The condition is caused by a bacteria, parasites or viruses, such as the norovirus.

The restaurant, which remains open, hosted a similar festival last Saturday. So far no illnesses associated with that event have been reported, according to the Maryland Department of Health. Local health officials went to the restaurant Saturday to inspect the facility and make sure employees who had been sick in the previous 48 hours were not working.

Judy L. Roberson of Silver Spring said she went to the most recent event and that it was her third time attending the festival. She said the festival was packed with attendees, as it normally is, and that she noticed new protocols being used. Restaurant staff wore gloves and gave out silverware rather than let patrons grab their own. An attendant manned and cleaned the bathroom. Attendees drank from plastic cups and were given commemorative glasses that people normally drank from during the festival to take home instead.

“You could tell they must have been taking some precautions,” said Roberson, who did not know about the outbreak until after she had attended the event.

Roberson, 52, an insurance agency owner, said Fager’s Island has a good reputation and tasty food, and she will continue to eat there. The restaurant is is a fixture in the community and known for its spectacular view of the ocean, she said.

Kevin Myers, general manger of Fager’s, declined to discuss the incident until the investigation is completed. He said in a statement that he didn’t want to speculate on the source of the outbreak and is working with health officials to determine the cause.

Gastroenterities can spread when people consume contaminated food or water or come in contact with an infected person.

“The food is one of the most likely places for it to spread because food is a breeding ground for the bacteria,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, an associate professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University.

One of the possibilities is vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria associated with shellfish, such as oysters, that can lead to gastroenteritis, Lee said. It is a naturally occurring bacterium that lives in warm saltwater and infects humans through the consumption of undercooked shellfish and skin wounds.

“Whenever you eat seafood that is one concern,” Lee said. “Whenever you eat oysters it is one of the things you think about.”

People with gastroenteritis often have diarrhea, abdominal pain, vomiting, headache, fever and chills. Most people recover without treatment.

The outbreak was discovered Nov. 6 after the Worcester County Health Department received nine illness complaints from festival attendees. People from Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey reported getting sick after the Nov. 4 event. No one suffered symptoms severe enough to be hospitalized, state health department officials said, and no deaths have been linked to the outbreak.

The best prevention from gastroenteritis is frequent hand-washing, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine.

An earlier version misidentified vibrio parahaemolyticus. The Sun regrets the error.

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