msnbc.com news services
updated 12/19/2006 9:32:56 AM ET 2006-12-19T14:32:56

A norovirus may have caused hundreds of people to become sick last week after eating at an Olive Garden restaurant, a health official said Monday.

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Stool samples from three restaurant employees and one patron tested positive for a norovirus, which can cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, said John Althardt, a spokesman for the Marion County Health Department.

About 370 people complained of being ill after eating at the restaurant, health officials said.

The restaurant, which remained closed for a fourth day on Monday, was cleared to reopen after being cleaned over the weekend, Althardt said.

Althardt said the Health Department was investigating how the pathogen might have been spread throughout the restaurant. Officials have also been talking to the restaurant’s management about its policies regarding employee hand-washing and making sure sick employees are excluded from working, he said.

“We will be monitoring this particular restaurant for the foreseeable future to make sure they follow our recommendations,” Althardt said.

News of the Olive Garden illnesses surfaced on Friday. It was the third U.S. restaurant chain this month to be linked to widespread customer illnesses.

Federal health officials declared that an outbreak of E.coli at Taco Bell restaurants in the U.S. Northeast was over last week. That outbreak sickened 71 people, and another E.coli outbreak at Taco John’s restaurants in Iowa and Minnesota sickened 54 customers.

Olive Garden is a unit of Darden Restaurants Inc.. The affected restaurant was closed on Friday, and Althardt said the Health Department had approved its reopening on Monday.

Olive Garden spokesman Steve Coe said the company was aiming to reopen the restaurant on Tuesday for dinner.

“We don’t know how the virus got into the restaurant, but we are taking the opportunity to reinforce with our management team and team members in the restaurant the rigorous standards that we have as it relates to especially handwashing,” Coe said.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report

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