Raleigh, N.C. — County health officials say the exact cause of illness among 280 people who ate at the 42nd St. Oyster Bar in downtown Raleigh may never be known.
About 280 people have reported getting sick after eating at the popular restaurant on West Jones Street from late November to late December.
"All of a sudden, I got so violently ill, we had to go to the emergency room," said customer Mike Fields.
Andre Pierce, Wake County's environmental health and safety director, said they were able to get samples from six people who became ill after eating at the restaurant. Three of those tested positive for norovirus, a common stomach virus that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea. The problem is figuring out where it came from.
"A very small dose of norovirus is easily transmitted among groups of people. So it could have been brought in by a patron. It could possibly be a food handler who was sick. But in general, it's very difficult to pinpoint the source of a norovirus," Pierce said.
Norovirus can be transmitted by consuming food or drink contaminated by an infected person, by touching contaminated surfaces or by eating contaminated shell fish.
It takes very little of the virus to make people sick.
"It can be on your hands, and even after handwashing, you can have enough particles of norovirus to contaminate a surface area or a food product. And there it will stay until it gets consumed and makes another person sick" said Pierce.
It takes about 24 to 48 hours for symptoms to show.
42nd Street owner Brad Hurley initially thought the culprit was oysters from Louisiana. As a precaution, the restaurant immediately stopped serving the Louisiana oysters and started using only oysters from North Carolina.
Tests of the remaining Louisiana oysters have come back negative, Pierce said. He added that the department also tested eight food handlers. All tested negative.
The restaurant has also worked with the health department to take other precautions, such as eliminating bare hand contact with food and changing from an ammonia sanitizer to chlorine.
Pierce said they may never know the exact source.
"Norovirus is probably one of the most unreported food illnesses out there. It's hard to detect. It's hard to find a source. We spend a lot of time and resources trying to track it down. And it is frustrating to us and it is frustrating to the public that you can't just put a finger on it, but it is very present and I think it's a lot more out there than we realize."
No matter what the cause, the whole situation is troubling to Hurley.
"It's upsetting that people would come to the restaurant to have a good time, then end up getting sick," Hurley said.
Hurley said his restaurant is probably the "safest place to eat in Raleigh right now" after all that has been done since the illnesses.
Since it has been more than two weeks since the last person got sick, Pierce believes the health risk at the restaurant is over.
In addition to the illnesses at 42nd St. Oyster Bar, 18 of 300 people attending a private party at the Angus Barn in Raleigh got the norovirus on Dec. 19.
The health department has had no other reports of illnesses from the Angus Barn.