Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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Columnist Jeff German: Virus still bugs officials

For a business that relies on tourists to survive, the California hotel has found itself in the middle of its worst nightmare -- an expensive fight to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Norwalk virus.

The downtown resort, which caters to a big Hawaiian crowd, has been going through a public relations crisis similar to one that hit cruise ships stricken with the mysterious stomach illness two years ago.

If you enter the latest Norwalk "hot zone," you'll see waitresses with plastic gloves serving food, drinks being served in paper cups, maintenance workers wiping off slot machines with disinfectant and packaged towelettes being handed out to patrons.

You'll see dealers, bellmen and valet parkers washing their hands after pocketing their tips. And you'll see gamblers pulling out bottles of anti-bacterial soap between pulls of one-armed bandits.

You'll also hear a lot of spin-doctoring on the property, from management to the employees, as the California copes with this flu-like outbreak that has become far more widespread than we originally were led to believe.

Two weeks ago Clark County Health District officials told us that, since December, they had accumulated reports of more than 100 cases of the stomach illness. Most of the cases were reported by Hawaiian visitors brought over on hotel-hired charter jets.

But this week, after word of the outbreak spread to the media in Hawaii, Health District officials said the number of cases linked to the California hotel increased tenfold to 1,174. The Health District was busy fielding calls from sick or recovering Hawaiians all last week.

The majority of the people calling in said they fell ill in January and February, which has led health officials monitoring the breakout to say with some caution that they've noticed a "slight decline" in the number of cases this month.

But March isn't over, and there still were 74 cases reported last week, which is far above the Health District's comfort zone of receiving a mere two reports a week.

"We haven't got a crystal ball," Health District spokesman Dave Tonelli said. "We can't speculate what will happen in the future."

What health officials do know, however, is that the outbreak is serious enough for them to seek assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

"They are the technical experts in this field," said Brian Labus, a Health District senior epidemiologist (disease detective) who's been tracking the virus here from the beginning. "There are some things about this we just don't understand."

A CDC team of contagious disease specialists was scheduled to arrive in Las Vegas Thursday.

This comes as the California has decided to dispute the Health District's figures in an attempt to portray the outbreak in the most favorable light to the hotel, which has been struggling to preserve its reputation.

Hotel officials say they have only 300 reports of people getting sick at the resort and that many of the reports received by the Health District could be related to other ailments, such as the flu.

But the hotel's number only relates to guests who have reported getting sick while staying there. Health District officials have included people who not only stayed at the resort, but visited it.

In their most ambitious spin this week, hotel officials delivered a letter to guests in which they suggested, without any scientific backing, that "we are seeing the beginning of what we believe will be a sustained decline" in the virus.

That left health officials, who still are looking to solve this mystery, a little baffled.

It's hard to blame the California for trying to put on a positive face.

But maybe, for the sake of the entire tourism industry here, it should let the experts tell us when the threat is over.

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