Va. Chipotle norovirus outbreak reflects advances in detection

WASHINGTON — What used to be called “food poisoning” is now, in many cases, being diagnosed as norovirus, said the director of the Loudoun County Health Department in the wake of a recent outbreak at the Chipotle Mexican Grill in Sterling, Virginia.

Dr. David Goodfriend said that although it seems there has been a marked increase in the number of norovirus outbreaks in the past few years, it’s actually because testing for the highly contagious bacterial infection has dramatically improved.

Recent advances in detecting and identifying norovirus strains have allowed public health officials to put a name on what, in many cases, caused diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain.

“Now we can actually say it’s norovirus,” said Goodfriend, adding that it’s one of the most common causes of food-borne outbreaks in the U.S. “In the past it’s been a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning we didn’t find E. coli, we didn’t find Salmonella.”

The Chipotle, at 21031 Tripleseven Rd., reopened on July 19 after voluntarily closing two days earlier, throwing out all open containers of food, undergoing a professional cleaning and minimizing the likelihood that any ill employees would be working.

“We’re not aware of anyone getting sick since they reopened,” said Goodfriend.

“We’re aware of at least 135 customers who became sick after visiting Chipotle a week and a half ago,” said Goodfriend. “As far as we know, all of them are in the process of getting better or have completely recovered.”

Both stool samples from two unrelated victims came back positive with the same strain of norovirus, said Goodfriend. In addition to the testing, the illness pattern of patients was consistent with norovirus.

“It will come on strong, affect a very high percentage of people who come in contact with it,” said Goodfriend. “And then people will get better.”

Goodfriend says the department fields reports of people getting sick after eating at restaurants almost daily.

“Even if it’s just one person who said they got sick at a restaurant, we’ll investigate the restaurant,” he said.

Goodfriend said it’s rare that several people report being sickened after eating at the same establishment. “But it does happen, and when it does happen, it tends to be norovirus.”

Customers who ate at the restaurant and fell ill should call the health department at 703-771-5411. Questions for the health department can also be emailed to health@loudoun.gov.

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