Customers at La Hacienda who got sick before the Mexican restaurant was closed Thursday by Public Health Madison and Dane County were infected by an extremely contagious norovirus, according to a public health official.
The 23-year-old restaurant at 515 S. Park St. reopened for lunch Tuesday after being closed for four days.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year norovirus is responsible for 19 to 21 million illnesses, 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 to 800 deaths.
Norovirus causes vomiting and diarrhea, and those are the symptoms Pam Hermoso described after she ate at the restaurant May 5 to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Hermoso, 31, went to the restaurant with her husband and a friend that Sunday and began to get a stomach ache the next day. She said she couldn’t sleep Monday or Tuesday night and had to miss four days of work at West Towne Mall’s Nordstrom Rack.
She described “the worst” nausea, fever and constipation, and said she had no appetite for two days and was sick for a week. The doctor she went to diagnosed it as a stomach infection.
“I felt my stomach burning inside,” she said. “I never felt anything like that before.”
Hermoso was the only one in her group who ordered enchiladas suizas, or creamy chicken enchiladas. Her husband and friend didn’t get sick. She said she goes to La Hacienda once every four to six weeks. Her husband has been going to the restaurant for about 10 years, she said.
The outbreak sickened about 25 people who ate at the restaurant, said Doug Voegeli, environmental health director for Public Health Madison and Dane County.
Voegeli said the number was approximate because the investigation is ongoing.
He said the cause of the outbreak was norovirus, but declined to say whether anyone was hospitalized.
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La Hacienda owner David Herrera didn’t respond to voice or text messages Monday or Tuesday.
Luis Soria, 56, said he ate at the restaurant May 4 with his girlfriend, and two days later they were both violently ill. They ate three steak tacos and one chicken taco, he said.
He said he hasn’t felt that sick in more than 30 years.
Soria said he believes there were many more than 25 people who became ill. He said he and his girlfriend didn’t go to the hospital because they don’t have insurance, and he guessed there were others who also didn’t seek medical attention.
Neither Soria nor Hermoso knew the cause of their illness until they read media reports. That’s when they put the pieces together, and it’s another reason Soria thinks there are many other La Hacienda customers who weren’t tallied in the health department count.
“We don’t know where we can complain about it,” he said. “We didn’t go to the hospital because (we were) afraid to pay a lot of money. How many people think in the same way?”
People get norovirus from having direct contact with an infected person or consuming contaminated food or water, according to the CDC.
The virus is commonly spread through food or water that is contaminated during preparation or contaminated surfaces, according to Mayo Clinic.
Voegeli said he couldn’t recall with certainty the last time a restaurant was closed by the health department.
“A closure due to a foodborne illness is very rare, but closures due to other health issues is somewhat routine,” he said. “In those cases, closure may be for a few hours to a day.”
Hermoso is just glad to be feeling like herself again. “Thank God I could go back to my job yesterday,” she said.