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Norovirus strikes guests, workers

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal



William and Betty Spiers drove from Canada to Las Vegas with one thought in mind -- to have a good time.

But the good time went bad when their stomachs started doing rock 'n' roll that could be let loose only in the restroom.

"We started having gastrointestinal problems not long after we gambled and ate at a buffet last Saturday night at the Flamingo," Betty Spiers, 70, said.

On Monday, William Spiers, 73, had to be taken by ambulance to Desert Springs Hospital Medical Center for treatment of dehydration brought on by severe diarrhea.

"Now we're worried we won't be able to afford the medical treatment in the United States," said Betty Spiers, who said her husband returned to their room at the Hilton Grand Vacation Club after a few hours of treatment.

It turned out that a norovirus, the second most common virus reported in the United States after the cold, had struck Las Vegas again. In March, more than 1,000 people became ill at the California because of a norovirus outbreak.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that norovirus is estimated to cause 23 million cases of acute gastroenteritis in the United States per year. Two deaths were connected to outbreaks in 2002.

About 270 cases, two-thirds of them involving workers, have been connected to a gastrointestinal ailment first reported early last week at the Flamingo Las Vegas. The Clark County Health District reported Tuesday that norovirus was responsible for the outbreak.

Last week, officials with Caesars Entertainment, the owner of the Flamingo, alerted health officials to guests and workers complaining of illness.

"We also got involved with a health care consultant right away," said Robert Stewart, a spokesman for Caesars.

Deep chemical cleaning was undertaken throughout the property. Disposable ice buckets and cups became the rule. A hot line was set up for workers and guests. Signs went up, notifying people of the potential outbreak and advising them to wash their hands.

Anyone who was ill was taken to the Harmon Medical Center for treatment.

Norovirus causes acute gastroenteritis, sometimes called the stomach flu. It is named after the original strain "Norwalk virus," which caused an outbreak of gastroenteritis in a school in Norwalk, Ohio, in 1968.

On Wednesday, an official with the health district called the Spierses to say their symptoms are consistent with the virus.

But after an outbreak is confirmed, testing is not done on all individuals who have symptoms because of the cost and because it would not help with treatment, said Jennifer Sizemore, a health district spokeswoman.

The good news is that the virus generally passes through the system in about 72 hours. The bad news, as William Spiers knows, is that it is "very uncomfortable."

"I'm feeling better today, but my stomach is still kind of a mess," he said.

Federal health officials said the norovirus accounts for more than two-thirds of the estimated cases of food-borne illnesses in the United States each year. Infected food handlers are usually the cause of the contamination.

No one knows how the virus came to the Flamingo.

The norovirus is found in the stool and vomit of infected people. People can become infected with the virus in several ways:

• Eating food or drinking liquids contaminated with norovirus.

• Touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then touching their own mouth, nose or eyes.

• Having direct contact with another person who is infected.

"People need to wash their hands much more," said Dave Tonelli, a health district spokesman. "Even shaking hands can be a problem."

Whenever large groups of people are in close contact, Tonelli said, the virus can spread rapidly.

Lawsuits, particularly involving people who become ill on cruises, are fairly common. But Las Vegas trial attorneys Gerald Gillock and Jim Crockett said that if a business does everything possible to contain an outbreak and alert customers, no liability exists.

"I don't know what else we can do at this point," Stewart said. "The health of our guests and our employees is paramount to us."

Whether the Spierses will have to pay for their medical care is unknown. Hotel officials gave them the name of a company that is investigating claims of people who think they came down with the virus at the Flamingo.

"As soon as all the evidence is in, I feel sure people will be dealt with in the fairest way possible," Stewart said.

Guests who want to check out early will not be penalized, Stewart said. And guests who would prefer not to stay at the Flamingo because of the outbreak are referred to another property, he said.

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