Health Dept.: Norovirus caused Olive Garden outbreak

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Chris Proffitt/Eyewitness News

Castleton - Health officials blame the norovirus for making hundreds of Olive Garden Restaurant customers sick.The Castleton restaurant will reopen Tuesday afternoon after a thorough cleaning.

On Monday, health officials had their answer to what sickened over 400 people who ate at the Castleton Olive Garden restaurant last week.

"Three stool samples from employees and one from a customer of the outbreak all showed a presence of norovirus," said Ed Culver, Marion County Health Department.

The norovirus at the Olive Garden is same family of viruses that sickened 230 students last January at Hamilton Southeastern Junior High School and is often linked to outbreaks at restaurants, nursing homes and cruise ships. According to the Centers For Disease Control, noroviruses cause brief stomach flu symptoms lasting a day or two. The symptoms were found among the hundreds who ate at the restaurant.

"On Tuesday morning I got sick. So we ate there Sunday and probably 2:00 am Tuesday I got up feeling weird," said Zack Pugh.

The restaurant closed on Friday so it could be sanitized over the weekend. Inspectors cleared it to re-open on Monday. However, a sign in the window says it will open Tuesday. The Florida-based restaurant chain maintains that it already has the industry's leading health and safety practices and that the green light to re-open is a vote of confidence.

"As we move forward and reopen this restaurant, this provides us a great opportunity to reinforce those standards we have in place," said Steve Coe, Olive Garden spokesman.

Reopening the restaurant will likely be easier than winning back the faith of customers shaken by an outbreak that sickened hundreds of people.

Olive Garden is cooperating with health officials to determine the cause of the bug, which may have been transmitted by an infected employee who didn't wash after using the restroom.

Meantime, the restaurant says it plans to institute better handwashing procedures. Also, before each shift begins, managers will ask employees if they feel sick. If anyone reports feeling ill, they will be sent home.

Initially it was thought that E.coli might have been responsible for the Olive Garden illness, but the bacteria has been ruled out as a cause. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that E.coli is behind an outbreak at some Taco Bell restaurants on the east coast. Those cases are not related to the Castleton Olive Garden incident.