updated 12/22/2008 6:43:45 PM ET 2008-12-22T23:43:45

Some health department workers in southern Illinois think they may have discovered some contaminated food — at their own office Christmas gathering.

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After the Lawrence County Health Department had a buffet for 72 people at a restaurant last week, 42 of the attendees suffered stomach problems, including the head of the department, Phyllis Wells.

"I'm telling you, it got me down. I about passed out and everything else," Wells said Monday. "It's not been funny. It's taken the punch out of my whole Christmas."

Wells says the cause of the outbreak hasn't been pinpointed. But she suspects the culprit was a norovirus — something people get from contact with those infected, ingesting contaminated food or drink, or by touching contaminated items and then their mouths.

For now, Wells says the common denominator appears to be cold diced ham served in the salad bar.

"It may be that just a food handler was sick at the time and handled some of the food they prepped for the meal," she said. "Or maybe it was somebody who was sick who came to it and touched the handle and contaminated it."

Wells says it isn't lost on her that state health officials are now investigating a restaurant where food-inspection and other public health workers got sick.

"It's just my luck," she said, mustering a laugh. "Usually, it's our job to investigate other things. But us getting sick is ironic."

There was no answer Monday at the restaurant. Wells says it's her understanding the business hasn't reopened since the outbreak.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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