April 18. 2013 1:22PM

Sickness after eating take-out postpones opening of Pembroke drama club show

New Hampshire Union Leader

The Pembroke Academy drama club has had to postpone opening night of its "Midsummer Night’s Dream" performance tonight, after about a dozen children fell sick after eating take-out food Wednesday evening, the drama club coach said.

A top state health official said an investigation has started, but it is too early to blame a particular food item or food source. Jose Montero, New Hampshire director of public health, said the assumption is norovirus is involved.

"We have seen already six outbreaks this month," he said. The virus can be transmitted both through foods and improper sanitary habits, he said.

Peter Mehegan said the students started throwing up about a half-hour after eating the take-out food, which a father had purchased at Olive Garden restaurant in Concord and brought in for the cast Wednesday night.

A spokesman for Olive Garden’s corporate office said the health of its customers is the company’s number-one priority, and its total-quality team has launched an investigation.

"We believe this was an isolated incident, since we have had no other complaints from any other guests," said spokesman Mike Bernstein.

Mehegan said almost 30 students are part of the production of the Shakespearean comedy. He said between 10 and 12 fell sick. Some were taken to Concord Hospital for treatment, he said.

He said a stomach bug is not going through the school, and the students appeared healthy before eating.

In fact, when cast members started telling him that fellow students were in the bathroom throwing up, he thought they were acting out a prank.

One mother, who didn’t want her name used, said her 11th grade daughter was in Concord Hospital until midnight and was suffering from a fever and nausea on Thursday.

"They worked so hard for this play. For something like this to happen ..." she said.

A spokesman at Concord Hospital, Jennifer Dearborn, said she spoke with the emergency department and was unable to confirm that several teenagers showed up at the hospital Wednesday night.

Montero said school officials gave investigators the names of the sick children; they will be interviewed, and a stool sample will be sought, he said.

Investigators will also want to know if Pembroke Academy students unassociated with the drama club have been sick, which would point the problem away from the restaurant. It could possibly be that an infected person served the food at the school, he said.

"We may have a big investigation on our hands (Friday), depending on what our (initial) investigation finds," Montero said.

He said it is unusual, but not unheard of, for someone to be sickened right away from tainted food.

Mehegan said the food was steaming when it arrived, and students started eating it quickly. The food involved two main dishes, salad and bread sticks. He said he ate portions of each but did not get sick.

He said he enjoys the Olive Garden and doesn’t hold any ill will toward the restaurant.

The head of the school, Mike Reardon, said a decision will be made Friday on whether the production will be held this weekend.

Mehegan said the play will open as soon as the students are healthy.

"We’re good, and when we’re ready we’ll kick the doors down," he said.