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400 sickened as Norovirus confirmed at Tacoma El Toro, suspected in U. Place

Pierce County health officials say they received a positive test result from the state health laboratory Thursday from a customer who at the Tacoma location.

More than 400 people have now gotten sick from a Norovirus outbreak that has been confirmed at a Tacoma El Toro Mexican restaurant and suspected at the El Toro in University Place.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) says 391 people were sickened after eating at the Tacoma location at 5716 N. 26th Street. Ten to 15 people got sick after eating at the University Place location at 3820 Bridgeport Way W.

TCPHD says it received a positive test result from the state health laboratory Thursday from a customer who at the Tacoma location between Dec. 31, 2017, and Jan. 8, 2018 -- confirming the virus at the Tacoma El Toro. Both locations are now back open after being cleaned and sanitized.

"I didn't know what was wrong with me. I thought I caught the flu, caught something else. You just don't know. I got dehydrated so fast," said Trisha Gomez.

She says she and her boyfriend ate at the Tacoma El Toro location on Tuesday, January 2.

"We went into the bar, had chips and salsa and ordered some $1.50 tacos off the happy hour menu. Then we ate it, and it was good. Didn't taste funny, everything was normal," said Gomez.

She says El Toro is one of her favorite restaurants. So much so, that she returned to the restaurant the very next day, on January 3.

"That next day I woke up about 9 a.m. I wasn't feeling that great, but I got a call from an old friend I hadn't seen in about ten years. He randomly called and say he's in town and asked if I wanted to get lunch," she said. "Of course I said let's go to El Toro. So we went there and I ate again. For a second time. We had more chips and salsa!"

It's a decision she soon regretted.

"By the time I got home, which was about an hour and a half later, I was sick. Then the vomiting and all that fun stuff started, and it didn't stop," said Gomez. "It's uncomfortable and it's scary."

She went to the doctor right away. Then a few days later, she learned the health department had closed El Toro for at least 24 hours, or until thoroughly cleaned and sanitized.

"The second I heard that, I called the health department and reported it," she said.

She says investigators with the Tacoma Pierce-County Health Department interviewed her on Thursday. Her boyfriend and the friend she went to lunch with also got sick.

"It was about 20 hours of straight throwing up," she said.

Both locations are now back open after being cleaned and sanitized.

On Thursday night, KING 5 spoke to customers who'd returned to the Tacoma location and were once again eating at El Toro.

"I've heard about it, but I also know what they've done to clean up. They've bleached everything. This is probably the safest place in the state to eat right now," said David Burgess, who said he eats at the El Toro in Tacoma at least once a week. "We don't want their business to be hurt so badly by this. They're good people. They work hard. I know the place is clean now. I'm not concerned at all. We just ate, and it was good!"

Employees at the Tacoma El Toro confirmed the restaurant had been thoroughly cleaned, but referred our questions to the general manager. Calls and emails to the general manager have not yet been returned.

Health department investigators, have identified two staff members at the Tacoma El Toro location who went to work sick. Health officials also say everyone who got Norovirus ate chips and salsa.

The county says the first reports of illness came from three different groups of people who say they ate at the Tacoma location between Dec. 31 and Jan. 2. Those affected started feeling symptoms 24-36 hours after eating, and the symptoms lasted one-and-a-half to two days.

More cases rolled in from customers who reported eating at the Tacoma El Toro as recently as Monday. The Tacoma location was closed Monday for cleaning.

The first University Place cases came from customers who say they got sick after eating there last Saturday. Health officials closed the restaurant Wednesday morning for cleaning.

If you ate at El Toro Restaurant and became ill, the health department would like to hear from you. You can email them at food@tpchd.org, report online at www.tpchd.org/reportfoodborneillness, or call (253) 798-4712.

Norovirus is highly contagious and causes explosive diarrhea and violent vomiting -- often at the same time.

“The virus spreads easily and is environmentally persistent,” said Katie Lott, food program manager in a blog post. “Norovirus can stay on objects and surfaces and still infect people for days or weeks."

TPCHD says an infected person can spread the virus for up to two weeks after recovering from symptoms.

Health officials also remind food workers who worry about losing pay by calling in sick that the state has a new paid sick leave law. Most employees can accrue paid sick time based on how many hours they have worked -- including part-time and seasonal workers.

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