April 25. 2013 10:13PM

Pembroke Academy illness attributed to norovirus

New Hampshire Union Leader

Tests have confirmed that norovirus - not food poisoning - caused members of the Pembroke Academy drama club to become frighteningly ill last week, state health officials said Thursday.

Students and school staff initially thought the illness came from take-out food a parent brought for the cast during a dress rehearsal for a "A Midsummer Night's Dream" last Wednesday. Students started vomiting about half an hour after eating and some were so ill they had to be hospitalized.

Christine Adamski, chief of the bureau of infectious disease control at the state Division of Public Health, said Thursday that tests this week confirmed it was an outbreak of norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness that can be transmitted through foods and improper hand hygiene.

"How it was acquired through all the individuals is often never known," Adamski said. "There are lots of ways, unfortunately, you can pick up this virus."

Adamski said the virus usually takes 12 to 24 hours, sometimes longer, to develop to the point people start showing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea. It usually runs its course within two or three days but the virus itself can still be present.

More than a dozen students became ill about half an hour after eating take-out from the Olive Garden and many suspected the food was what caused the illness. But Jose Montero, New Hampshire director of public health, said right away he thought it was norovirus. The state had already had five outbreaks this month and this week's confirmation brings the total to six.

Olive Garden corporate spokesman Mike Bernstein told the Union Leader last week that the Italian restaurant chain would also investigate, although it had not received complaints from any other customers.

Still, the news from the state health labs was this week was welcome, Bernstein said in an e-mail Thursday.

"We appreciate the efforts by local and state health officials to quickly determine what caused these illnesses and, of course, we're very glad it was not our food," he said.