Suspected norovirus outbreak at a Maryland oyster festival – NoroCORE Food Virology

Suspected norovirus outbreak at a Maryland oyster festival

photo of oysters on the half shellA food and music festival at a coastal getaway sounds pretty enticing, but sadly norovirus may have been a guest as well.

An annual beer and oyster shindig (cutely but now perhaps ironically named “Shell Shocked”) held at a popular restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland a little over a week ago left at least 145 ill. Attendees from Maryland, as well as neighboring Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, were affected.

Norovirus is suspected, but not confirmed yet, and the Maryland Department of Health is working with the Worcester County Health Department on the investigation. People who attended the event are being asked to submit surveys to help with the data collection.

Over the weekend, public health officials were checking the facility and ensuring that any employees who had been ill in the last 48 hours were excluded from work. They gave the go ahead for another event to be held this past Saturday night.

Finding out the source of this outbreak will be particularly interesting, since there are several possibilities that come to mind. Molluscan shellfish (clams, oysters, etc.) are unique in that they can concentrate norovirus in their guts if they feed in contaminated waters, just waiting for someone to come along and eat them raw or only lightly cooked. A lot of tracking of oyster shipments goes on at the national level, meaning that if the virus was in the shellfish and traced to a specific shipment, the original harvesting location(s) might be identified. However, this was a large event (two years ago over 12,000 oysters were consumed), which may complicate things a bit.

Another possibility is for this to be a “run-of-the-mill” foodborne norovirus outbreak. Over half of foodborne norovirus outbreaks occur in restaurants, and 70% of the time it is linked back to infected food workers on-site. And yet again, this outbreak may not have involved the kitchen at all, such as if an attendee had been sick and contaminated a busy restroom, touched surfaces, etc. between rounds of revelry.

We will update this post if more information comes available.

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