County to survey Harbor Inn diners

If you ate at Harbor Inn Seafood restaurant Jan. 13-22, local health officials may want to talk to you — sick or not.

Catawba County Public Health (CCPH) plans to study why some patrons of the Conover restaurant became sick and some did not after dining during that time period.

Randomly selected patrons will be interviewed about their dining experience, including what they ate at the restaurant.

Currently, CCPH has documented 133 reports of people who became ill after eating at Harbor Inn during those 10 days. The most recent illness report was documented Tuesday.

State tests of sick patrons' stool samples determined the illnesses were caused by norovirus, a transmissible and contagious stomach bug that is sometimes classified as food poisoning.

"We'll take a certain amount of patrons who were affected by the illness and a number of patrons who were not directly affected by the illness but who ate during that time period," said Kelly Schermerhorn, CCPH public information officer.

Despite numerous public reports that the recent illnesses were linked to Harbor Inn's salad, Schermerhorn said health officials have not identified a specific source of the norovirus outbreak.

"We haven't found any new indications," she said. "The study will help us learn more about it and attempt to find a vehicle responsible.

There's no data at this point."

Schermerhorn said CCPH has not received reports of people who ate at Harbor Inn after Jan. 22 and experienced symptoms of stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

"There does not appear to be any concern about ongoing exposure to norovirus at Harbor Inn," said Doug Urland, CCPH health director. "A case-control study will give us and state health officials the ability to learn more about the nature of norovirus, how it spreads and what steps may be available to help better prevent this type of illness in the future."

CCPH reported Jan. 24 that 40 Harbor Inn patrons experienced illness after dining. That number jumped to 128 ill patrons Jan. 27.

"Two main factors contributed to that," Schermerhorn said. "It takes time to confirm callers calling in meet the case definition for norovirus. One, to make sure they weren't identified incorrectly. Media coverage also raised awareness and made people call in."

The study is expected to take up to three weeks, with results available several weeks afterward.

"State officials acknowledge that, due to the nature of norovirus, data collected may not point to a specific cause," according to a press release from CCPH.

CCPH officials report that Harbor Inn's management has been cooperative during an investigation of the incident. Health officials report no major infractions during inspections of the restaurant since the illness outbreak. Officials have also conducted food-preparation, food-storage and other training with Harbor Inn's staff.

According to a press release from the N.C. Division of Public Health, several county health departments across the state have reported multiple outbreaks of norovirus, prompting state public health officials to issue advice on steps everyone can take to avoid the illness.

“The most important message we have right now is that people who are ill with vomiting or diarrhea should not work, go to school or attend day care while they are having symptoms," said State Epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies. “Everyone needs to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water. This is the most effective way to protect yourself and others against norovirus since hand sanitizers alone are not as effective against this hardy virus."