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Chili's still closed as salmonella cases grow

Bob Susnjara, Daily Herald Staff Writer

July 04, 2003

Confirmed salmonella cases traced to the temporarily shuttered Chili's Grill & Bar in Vernon Hills continued to rise Thursday.

Lake County Health Department officials said the count escalated to 11 confirmed and 98 suspected salmonella cases from Chili's patrons. On Wednesday there were seven confirmed and 23 potential cases.

Seven victims were hospitalized Thursday, health department spokeswoman Leslie Piotrowski said. In addition to Lake County, the salmonella victims are from Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Palatine, Aurora, Florida, Iowa and Kenosha, Wis.

Physicians and hospitals must report salmonella findings to county health departments in Illinois.

Although salmonella infections occur from eating contaminated food, investigators are leaning toward an infected food handler's lack of hand washing after going to the bathroom as the cause of the Chili's outbreak, said the health department's Dr. Victor Plotkin said.

"We're collecting good data and we're hoping to come up with (official) results on Monday," Plotkin said.

Health department officials urge anyone who ate at Chili's from June 23 through Monday to see a physician if experiencing diarrhea, stomach cramps or fever. They stressed the importance of hand washing by anyone with a diarrhea-type infection.

Salmonella is a bacterial disease involving the colon and small intestine. The symptoms usually develop within 12 to 36 hours of exposure.

Chili's voluntarily closed Tuesday. The restaurant at 567 E. Town Line Road remained shuttered Thursday and cannot reopen until salmonella test results are known for all 72 employees, officials said.

An occasional car entered Chili's parking lot at lunchtime Thursday. Visitors who tried to enter found a note stating:

"We are temporarily closed for an employee training session. We apologize for the inconvenience and hope to see you soon."

Piotrowski said the 72 Chili's employees have been providing cotton swab cultures for the salmonella testing. She said the agency's communicable disease division has been collecting the cultures.

Meanwhile, health department investigators have interviewed representatives at two other Lake County eateries where a pair of workers from the Vernon Hills Chili's also were employed.

Piotrowski declined to reveal the names of the other restaurants under scrutiny by the health department. The names will be made public if the two Chili's workers have salmonella.

"Food workers oftentimes work at several different restaurants," she said.

Chili's spokesman Louis Adams said it's not known when the Vernon Hills location will reopen. He said the eatery can operate with 30 or 40 employees.

Some salmonella victims already are reported to be seeking legal representation.

At least four Chili's guests contacted the Seattle-based Marler Clark law firm, which specializes in E. coli and salmonella cases. Spokeswoman Suzanne Schreck said the Vernon Hills diners discovered the Seattle firm on the Internet.

Chili's: Some victims have called lawyers

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