Records reveal extent of outbreak at Cowfish; at least 96 were sickened

Published: Jul. 1, 2015 at 1:56 AM EDT|Updated: Jul. 31, 2015 at 1:56 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, NC (Jacob Steimer/The Charlotte Observer) - At least 96 people were sickened during the Norovirus outbreak at The Cowfish restaurant in early June, according to county health department records obtained by the Observer.

The records, obtained through a public records request, provide the fullest account yet of the extent of the illnesses at the popular SouthPark sushi and burger bar.

Records show one Norovirus case was confirmed by a state Department of Health and Human Services laboratory. Ninety-five others were deemed "probable" by health officials. Just one person reported visiting a hospital.

The outbreak prompted the restaurant to close twice, once on June 5 and again on June 10. It reopened June 16.

Cowfish owner Alan Springate, responding by email to questions from the Observer, said his staff began to suspect a problem late in the day on Friday, June 5, when a customer reported some members of his party had become ill in the preceding two days.

Wednesday and Thursday of that week, two other guests had reported illnesses, but the restaurant had suspected a problem with a food item, calamari, which both guests had consumed. Cowfish removed the item from its menu and contacted its suppliers.

The person reporting on June 5 had not consumed calamari, though. At that point, "we began to consider the possibility that we were dealing with something other than a food issue," Springate wrote.

'Sanitizing everything'

While the restaurant was investigating this possibility, Cowfish Executive Chef David Lucarelli emailed the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

"I am sanitizing everything and throwing out what I can. Short of closing down the restaurant I can't think of anything else to do," he wrote.

After consulting with the health department, the restaurant decided to close during dinner that evening.

After the Cowfish posted news of its closing on Facebook June 6, others began coming forward to report they'd been sickened. The restaurant contacted each of them and shared details with the health department, Springate said.

By the time the restaurant knew something was amiss on June 5, at least nine of the restaurant's roughly 140 employees had been sickened, according to a report by state health inspector Nicole Lee. The first fell ill May 31, she wrote.

Springate's email said that while some employees had called in sick, "nothing raised a red flag."

"It's critical to understand that although we now know we were experiencing an uptick in illness, many employees had not yet notified us because they were not scheduled to work," he said.

When the third customer complaint was received June 5, the restaurant reviewed its employee sick calls and gathered information from employees and managers, he said.

A second closure

After Cowfish employees spent June 6 cleaning, the restaurant reopened June 7. But illnesses continued, and the restaurant decided to re-close June 10. It brought in two professional cleaning services and reopened June 16.

The night before the reopening, the Health Department announced that the outbreak had been caused by Norovirus, the most common cause of food-borne illness. The department said Cowfish was "proactive" in its response to the outbreak, and that it followed all Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Since its reopening, Springate said the restaurant has adopted enhanced cleaning and service protocols and implemented a more detailed system for tracking employee illnesses.

Springate said the restaurant acted appropriately in its response.

"We took extraordinary measures to address the problem once it had been identified," Springate wrote. "As we stated previously, nothing is more important to us than the health and safety of our guests and employees, and we believe that our actions over the past three weeks clearly demonstrate our priorities."

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre said her department is compiling a final report on the outbreak, which it plans to release by the end of July. The report will address any suspected causes and make any appropriate recommendations, she said.