Five people who attended a Dec. 3 alumni reunion at a Niles banquet facility became ill afterward, prompting the Niles health officer and the Cook County Department of Public Health to investigate.
The restaurant, , passed the thorough, six-hour inspection the county Department of Public Health conducted on Tuesday, Dec. 6. Dwight Roepenack, the Niles health officer, praised the restaurant for being proactive in health and sanitation procedures.
The inspection concluded that food is stored and served at safe temperatures. That led Roepenack to speculate the illness was possibly a norovirus, also called the cruise-ship virus, and may have been transmitted by an ill server who was not yet showing symptoms.
"They've (White Eagle) done a lot and they're doing good. This was just an unfortunate incident," Roepenack said, adding the hall's owners have taken steps to continuously improve its sanitation routines. For example, they recently added a booster heater to its dishwasher to get the water temperature up to, and past, the germ-killing 180 degrees Cook County requires.
Germs can live up to 12 days
Amy Poore, a spokesperson for the Cook County Department of Public Health, confirmed that White Eagle passed its health inspection, but could not yet confirm that a norovirus caused the illness. She said, however, that symptoms were consistent with a norovirus, which causes gastrointestinal discomfort. It's highly contagious, she explained, with germs able to last on surfaces, such as door handles, for up to 12 days.
"So hand washing is essential," she advised.
No other incidents in at least 17 years
Ted Przybylo, executive chef and a member of the family that owns White Eagle, said he and four other employees have Illinois sanitation certificates and that they take food safety very seriously. The hall has not had any other incidents since he became executive chef in 1994, he said. During the week some of the alumni reunion diners got sick, the hall served 5,000 people without incident, he added.
"We try to be as proactive on this as we possibly can," said Ted Przybylo, one of the six siblings in the family that owns the White Eagle. They have put in touchless soap dispensers and self-advancing towel dispensers, and are now reconfiguring four hand-washing sinks with electric-eye sensors, so that the whole hand-washing process is a touchless one, he said. That reduces the potential for germs to be transmitted.
Ted Przybylo's brother Andrew Przybylo, a Niles trustee who also has a leaderhip role at White Eagle, said the restaurant has always sent home employees who appear ill, "but now it's like a religion."
Some diners became ill, spouses did not
Reports of the incident surfaced when alumni of Holy Trinity High School, who attended a reunion of about 100 attendees at White Eagle on Saturday, Dec. 3, compared notes a few days later and found some of them had gotten sick.
Herbert and Greg Lopatka, who are brothers, said they and their sister became ill, and Terry Urbaszewski said she and her husband Eugene became ill. However, Herb's wife did not become ill.
Greg Lopatka also named three others who he said became ill, but Patch could not reach them to confirm this.
Herbert Lopatka said that the day after the dinner, he was taken by ambulance to and given two liters of saline by IV and an injection for nausea. After six hours, the hospital was preparing to admit him, but he chose to go home at 2:40 a.m., he said. He added he could only consume dry toast and tea for six days.
Incident 'pretty resolved'
The incident happened 13 days ago, and Roepenack, the Niles health officer, said that while Cook County waits four weeks to declare an incident closed, "in my mind, once it gets past two weeks it's pretty resolved."
Roepenack said that during the Cook County inspection, which lasted from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., the hot food temperatures were in the 160s and 170s, which is at or above what the Food and Drug Administration requires in order to kill bacteria, and cold food was also refrigerated at the proper temperature (40 degrees or below). While the county requires dishwasher water to reach 180 degrees, Roepenack said he put a thermometer in the machine and it registered 202 degrees.
Roepenack said he's pleased White Eagle has made continuous improvements in sanitation, such as adding the booster heater for the dishwasher.
"They want to do it right," he observed.