Sickened in Seattle: 200 ill with foodborne norovirus bug

An outbreak of norovirus has reportedly sickened 200 people who attended a catered event at the Russell Investments Center in downtown Seattle on December 1st. Public Health — Seattle & King County has surveyed 200 of the 600 people who were present at the event, of which 150 have reported symptoms of the bug such as vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal distress – plus a further 50 cases which have been reported directly to the health department. “We anticipate that that number is likely low,” medical epidemiologist in the health department’s communicable-disease section Dr. Meagan Kay said. She added that all the food vendors inside the building have been closed, including a Starbucks – so it’s not all bad news.

Otherwise, the tower has remained open though it cleaned from top to bottom during the following weekend to get rid of the germ. Bon Appetit Management Co., the firm that catered the event, did likewise. “We have worked with our food safety experts to disinfect the surfaces in our facility and have taken all other necessary steps to ensure food safety,” the catering company said. “The source of this illness remains unclear, and we are as eager as anyone to learn precisely how and when it began.” Regarding that, interviews have led health officials to believe that some people were sick prior to the event held in the Russell Investments cafeteria. The crowded environment may have provided norovirus with the perfect opportunity to spread.

Curiously, the building houses Seattle food-safety law firm Marler Clark – talk about your mind-blowing (or in this case, chunk-blowing) irony. “Norovirus is really super tough,” Bill Marler, who represents clients sickened by the germ, said. He added that no one is sick in his office – how very convenient. Did they know something nobody else did? Did they stage this farewell party for a tenant in order to plant the pre-sick people among the healthy ones so the latter would catch the bug? Isn’t too much of a coincidence that there is a food-safety firm in the very same building? Was it all just a scheme to boost business? We may never know the answer to these questions.

What we do know, though, is that in general norovirus is the leading cause of foodborne disease in the United States, and foodborne norovirus in particular accounts for five million cases of illness associated with the bug every year. Since the virus is most commonly spread on the unwashed hands of food workers, good hand hygiene is essential to prevent its transmission; i.e., washing hands frequently in hot, soapy water, as well as disinfecting doorknobs, elevator buttons, telephones, and other high-touch surfaces on a regular basis.

Related: Early symptoms of food poisoning