'Stomach flu' outbreak toll nears 50

Though the suspected norovirus is traced to a Brooksville cafe, officials say it's safe to eat there.

Published January 31, 2007

BROOKSVILLE - Health officials are now counting nearly 50 people sickened by Hernando County's first norovirus outbreak.

The easily transmitted virus is believed to have infected more than 40 people who ate food prepared by Mallie Kylas Cafe on Jan. 19. Another four contracted the illness later from family members who were sick, said Al Gray, environmental manager for the County Health Department.

Gray stressed that the outbreak is drawing to a close and that it's safe to eat at the popular Brooksville restaurant. "I wouldn't hesitate to eat there now," he said.

Larie DeWitt Hensley, owner of Mallie Kylas Cafe, said business remained steady, even after reports that her restaurant seemed to be the center of the outbreak.

More than 30 people reported falling ill after eating a catered lunch at a Jan. 19 County Commission workshop meeting. The sick included two commissioners, a planning and zoning commissioner, at least 10 county department heads, a handful of staffers, and several members of the public.

The meeting, held at the Hernando County Utilities Administration Building in Brooksville, featured fruit salad from Publix, packaged pastries from Wal-Mart and a catered sandwich lunch from Mallie Kylas.

As news reports filtered out, health investigators heard from customers sickened after eating at Mallie Kylas on the same day the catered lunch was served. Samples have been taken from the restaurant staff to try to find the source.

Gray pointed out that the virus - unlike other food-borne illnesses - doesn't live or breed in food and isn't necessarily a result of poor food handling. It can live on surfaces for hours and be transmitted through a handshake or by touching a tainted railing or doorknob and then putting hand to mouth.

Health officials have collected several samples for testing. That typically takes 10 days. In the meantime, the symptoms of the illness point to a norovirus, a virus that has afflicted several high-profile cruise ships in recent months.

Noroviruses cause fever, chills, body aches, stomach, cramps, diarrhea and vomiting. The severity and duration of the symptoms varies from person to person. Most people recover without a doctor's care.

Hensley said that seeing news crews pitched outside was "heartbreaking." But she's been bolstered by the loyalty of her customers, including county staffers who had colleagues sickened in the outbreak.

Hensley said business was good throughout the weekend. Monday morning, shortly before the lunch rush, the parking lot was already crowded, to-go orders waited at the counter and the phone rang nonstop with people wanting reservations.

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or 352 754-6127.

Fast Facts

What happened?

Nearly 50 people became ill with what is suspected to be a norovirus. More than 30 ate a catered lunch from Mallie Kylas Cafe on Jan. 19, another 8 to 10 ate at the restaurant that day, and four cases are suspected "secondary infections" of family members caring for those sickened in the outbreak.

Health officials are still investigating but suspect a norovirus. It is not related to influenza, although many people call it a "stomach flu." It can live on surfaces for hours and be transmitted by a handshake, eating contaminated food or touching a contaminated surface and then putting hand to mouth.

Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever, chills, body aches and stomach cramps, typically lasting one to two days, although symptoms and severity can vary widely. Symptoms typically begin 24 to 48 hours after exposure.

Anyone with symptoms of a norovirus who feels they might have been exposed is asked to call Al Gray at the County Health Department at 540-6802. Information provided is kept confidential.