A total of about 400 diners became ill recently after eating at two local El Toro Mexican restaurants, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
That’s the latest tally in a long week of tracking a large norovirus outbreak as illness reports trickled — and then poured — into the health department’s tip line.
The symptoms — vomiting and diarrhea — are the commonly reported symptoms and are consistent with norovirus, a highly contagious pathogen.
The health department now has a confirmed case from a diner who ate at the Westgate location of the restaurant.
“We received a positive test result from the state’s public health laboratories today for a customer who ate there between Dec. 31 and Jan. 8,” the health department reported Thursday in a release.
The timeline: The week started with 41 reports of ill diners, which led to the closure of El Toro in Tacoma’s Westgate neighborhood Monday.
The restaurant reopened Tuesday after sanitizing and taking other preventive measures.
By Wednesday, reports of ill customers had extended to its sister restaurant in University Place and that location also closed for sanitizing.
That location reopened Thursday.
The count: So far, about 10-15 people have reported illness after dining at the University Place location at 3820 Bridgeport Way W.
The Tacoma location had 391 reports as of Thursday at its Westgate location at 5716 N. 26th St.
When did the infections occur? Diners who became ill reported they dined at the University Place location Jan. 6. At the Westgate location, diners became ill after visiting the restaurant between Dec. 31 and Jan. 8.
There might be more: The health department still is investigating reports. The numbers could increase.
“We don’t yet have an exact number because we have not interviewed all the people who have made illness reports. We continue to receive additional illness reports,” the health department said in a statement.
What’s the source? That’s still unknown.
“We know two staff members at the Tacoma location worked while ill during the time customers there dined and later got sick. It’s still unclear if the outbreaks at the two locations are connected,” the health department reported. “Because of the nature of norovirus outbreaks, we may never know the exact affected items that caused illness. We know all the cases have dining at the El Toro Restaurants in common.”
Earlier this week, the health department suspected chips and salsa were a common factor in the outbreak, but further investigation revealed that “each restaurant makes everything in-house. They make their own salsa from scratch.”
What if I ate there? If you ate at an El Toro and became ill, contact the health department to file a report at 253-798-4712. Email email@example.com or make an online report at tpchd.org/reportfoodborneillness.
If you are sick: Quarantine yourself until 48 hours after symptoms have passed. Be aware that some sick with norovirus continue to be contagious for up to two weeks after an infection. Washing hands with warm water for at least 20 seconds is vital to prevent the spread of the infection.
Why did this spread so quickly? Norovirus is a pesky virus that can live on some surfaces up to three weeks. The virus is difficult to kill and it spreads easily. The health department recommends disinfecting with a strong beach solution.
What are the symptoms? Vomiting, diarrhea and generally feeling horrible. Also, some patients will experience a fever and headache. If you’re struck with norovirus, staying hydrated is important. The illness usually lasts one to three days. Symptoms after an infection can appear between 12 to 48 hours later.
What’s next in the investigation? The health department will continue interviewing people they have not yet spoken with.
“For restaurant closures of this type, we always schedule an educational visit where all employees, management, and owners review food-safety practices and procedures,” according to the department. “We also follow up with an inspection after the educational visit.”
The response from El Toro: Restaurant executive manager Ruben Arias Jr. released a statement Wednesday evening alerting diners that all five of El Toro’s restaurants — there are also restaurants in Puyallup, Parkland and Lakewood — had been sanitized as a preventive measure, although the virus is connected to only two of the five restaurants.
“The well-being of our guests has been our highest priority since our restaurant’s founding in 1979,” the statement said read in part.
“Unfortunately, norovirus is hitting our area very hard, and it found its way into our doors. According to the health department, the virus can be introduced by people into any closed public environment like schools, nursing homes, offices and restaurants.
“When we were informed of the outbreak in one of our restaurants, we immediately took corrective action to deep clean our establishment from top to bottom, sanitizing down to the last utensil. We have also alerted our other locations with instructions on how to prevent further propagation of the virus, as well as the importance of employees not coming to work if ill.
“We understand how troubling this news is to our loyal guests. Because of that, we are taking precautionary measures at each restaurant (even though there is no evidence that the virus is present), including a voluntary early closing to deep clean and sanitize, in order to further protect our guests.
“We take this opportunity to apologize to our guests that became ill after dining with us. We would hope to earn your trust and enjoy the opportunity of serving you again.”