Salmonella outbreak called worst since '85
Lake County health officials Wednesday night confirmed 163 victims of salmonella poisoning from the recent outbreak at the Vernon Hills Chili's restaurant.
That includes 27 restaurant workers, or 32 percent of the eatery's work force.
In a report to the board of health, health department staff members detailed the extent of the epidemic.
They said there still are 43 people with probable cases. Those people had been in close contact with infected persons and are now showing symptoms compatible with salmonella.
There are also 93 other possible cases involving people who claim to have eaten at the restaurant during the critical time period in late June.
"This is probably the largest salmonella outbreak in Lake County since the great milk salmonella outbreak in 1985," said Bill Mays, health department director of community health services.
The 1985 epidemic stemmed from the mixing of raw milk with pasteurized milk in a dairy. That infected 400,000 people in the Midwest area, Mays said.
In Chili's case, management "made some poor and unacceptable mistakes," health department Executive Director Dale Galassie said.
At one point, the restaurant operated for almost two hours with no water, which was a conscious management decision, he said.
Officials said the epidemic was contained before it could spread to 18 other food establishments that were at risk. Those places were at risk because some of those infected, including some customers and several Chili's employees, worked at other area restaurants.
"The outbreak got big and messy in a hurry with great potential for a secondary spread," Mays said.
He said the quick response of health workers and the prompt closing of the restaurant after the first positive case was confirmed June 31 averted a potential "nightmare." Chili's remained closed from July 1 through 10 and reopened July 11 after passing an inspection.
The nightmare may not be over for Chili's. At least two civil lawsuits, including one class-action lawsuit, have been filed against the restaurant chain. Victims are seeking damages from Chili's parent company, Brinker International Inc.
County health officials said they will try to recover some of the cost of managing the epidemic.
One positive result of the outbreak, officials said, is that Chili's has instituted a policy to shut down any of its 900 establishments nationwide if they don't have hot water or running water.