By: Candess Zona-Mendola

The Jimmy Johns Norovirus Outbreak is a classic example how one sick employee can make a whole lot of customers ill.  Three days ago, there were 19 claims of food poisoning stemming from a Jimmy Johns franchise out of Weston, Wisconsin. Three days, a store inspection, and some testing later, the Marathon County Health Department has identified over 100 reported illnesses and confirmed the source: a sick employee making sandwiches.

The timeline of the illnesses has not been released, so there is a possibility that many more people may have also become sick.

The Down and Dirty Details

Marathon County Health Department’s Environmental Health and Safety Coordinator Dale Grosskurth confirmed during an interview that the department was investigating the string of illnesses as early as April 7, 2017. Some of the illnesses were discovered on a popular online crowdsourcing website, Grosskurth further confirmed that the interviews conducted showed that those who had become sick all ate at the same Jimmy Johns franchise, located at 3910 Schofield Avenue, Weston, Wisconsin.

However, despite the findings and identification of cases, health officials remind the public that the investigation is not over yet. The final report is not expected until June, according to the media outlet Newsline 9. Grosskurth believes the investigation could still take weeks to identify all of the cases. It is likely many more people will be found to have links to the outbreak. Grosskurth added, “[w]e want to identify the factors that contributed to it. Whether its [sic] the food, employee behavior or something else.” Meanwhile, the health department continues to collect stool samples from ill people to confirm if they are linked to the outbreak.

The restaurant has worked with the local health department to disinfect and sanitize the location to hopefully eradicate any contamination. The restaurant also claims that all of the food within the location prior to the cleaning was thrown away. This sentiment was confirmed by Grosskurth, “[t]hey [the restaurant] discarded all of the food that had been prepped those days that potentially could have made some contamination.” Grosskurth told local media outlets that the restaurant is safe to eat at now.

The store’s owner, Brian Macak, issued the following statement in light of the outbreak:

“Food safety is our top priority and not negotiable in our business. We immediately closed our store and conducted a deep clean following confirmation from the Department of Health that an employee had tested positive for Norovirus. After an inspection by the Department of Health, we are now confident our site meets the highest food safety standards.”

Macak also told local media that his employees have undergone more food safety training. The restaurant was closed for sanitization and the pending investigation for several hours. The agency claims the restaurant has been cooperative in the investigations. “Do the cleaning and disinfection,” says Director Grosskurth, “Cooperated by getting rid of food that was prepared ahead of time.” The franchise confirmed the agency’s sentiments of cooperation.

A Review of the Investigation Timeline

The Marathon County Health Department has launched an investigation into the illnesses on or about April 13, 2017. According to Grosskurth, “We have received some complaints and are doing follow-up… It’s a full investigation.” Director Grosskurth confirmed the number of linked illnesses at the time to 19 people. The agency did not offer public speculation as to how many illnesses are expected to be linked to the outbreak.

Outbreaks & Restaurants

Foodborne illness outbreaks linked to restaurants remain in staggering numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Restaurants, specifically sit-down dining style restaurants [cause] 60% of outbreaks.” The most common of these were tied to Norovirus. The question is, why? This is what they do. Restaurants make food for people. Food service workers, in theory, should be the best trained about food safety, right? That may not always be the case. According to a CDC surveillance study, restaurants who had confirmed outbreaks were less likely to have food-safety certification training provided by a state or local agency or by a restaurant corporation than their non-outbreak counterparts.

Why Wasn’t The Employee Sent Home?

The franchise’s owner, Macak, confirmed his employee tested positive for Norovirus. The dates the employee worked and potentially spread the virus have not been released. The question now is, why was the employee allowed to remain at work if they were sick? The symptoms of Norovirus are not easily to hide, and include: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and a low-grade fever. Its onset is fairly rapid, within twelve to 48 hours, and most people get better within a few days.

This is a common problem in restaurants; food handlers infecting patrons. The health agencies are trying to find out why, when other options have not helped. According to the CDC study, “[k]itchen manager certification, sick leave pay, and policies to keep sick workers from working did not lower rates of infected food handlers as a cause of outbreaks.” The study does conclude, however, that training quality may have some help in reducing the risk of outbreaks.

Recommendations from the Health Department

It is likely that more people have been exposed to Norovirus after eating at Jimmy Johns and have yet to be identified. Also, Norovirus spreads easily. This means that secondary transmission, predominately by food coming into contact with an infected person or by cross-contamination, is highly probable. The outbreak could certainly continue to spread.

To avoid spreading of the infection, the Marathon County Health Department recommends:

“Anyone with diarrhea or vomiting should stay home from work or school until symptoms are gone in order to prevent spreading norovirus to others.

People with diarrhea or who are vomiting should not handle food, work in or attend day care centers or schools, or take care of patients in a health care facility until 48 hours after their symptoms are gone.”

If you or someone you care for recently ate at Jimmy John’s in Weston, Wisconsin, and became ill, medical attention is recommended during this outbreak. A medical provider may be able to confirm a Norovirus infection through a stool test.

UnsafeFoods will continue to monitor the investigations on this outbreak and report the findings as they are forthcoming.