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Health Scare Hits Hyatt Dulles

The "cruise ship virus" strikes Herndon hotel, reopened Tuesday.

Less than 24 hours before Herndon High School was to have its prom in the Hyatt Dulles Saturday night, the Herndon hotel voluntarily closed its doors after county tests revealed about 60 guests from two separate wedding receptions held there the previous weekend had come down with the mysterious flu-like norovirus — the “cruise ship” virus.

Over the weekend, hotel officials were confident that the hotel would be ready to reopen on Monday. However, as of Monday afternoon, Jim Deuel, the hotel’s general manager, estimated that only two-thirds of the 317 rooms in the 14-floor hotel had been disinfected. A team of about a dozen outside contractors has joined the Hyatt staff in cleaning “every inch” of the hotel, Deuel said.

“Obviously, we hoped to be open today,” Deuel said at a Monday press conference. “The cleaning process is very detailed. We are working to fully disinfect from top to bottom and we are committed to doing whatever it takes to finish the job."

The hotel will be open sometime this week, Deuel insisted on Monday. And it did. At 8:30 a.m., Tuesday, June 10, more than a week after the first symptoms were revealed and less than four days since the hotel elected to close, Deuel, with the "blessing of the Health Department" reopened the hotel to guests. "It feels good," he said. "The health department has really been a partner in this process. They have done a great job. I can't say enough."

“We have been cleaning everything from top to bottom, every square inch of this hotel,” Deuel said on Monday. “It’s been a painstaking slow process but it is the right thing to do.”

Using an industrial strength chlorine-based cleaning solution, eight times stronger than regular bleach, workers were scouring and scrubbing everything from doorknobs to elevator buttons and telephones to toilets.

“We are already quite a clean hotel,” Deuel said, smiling. “We are just taking it to a different level of disinfection.”

IT WAS ON Monday, June 2, when Deuel said he received the first initial reports about wedding party guests coming down with flu-like symptoms. “I got a few calls that Monday and almost immediately we got on the phone to the health department,” the general manager said.

“Norovirus is quite resistant. It can stay on surfaces for long periods of time,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, acting director of the Fairfax County Health Department. “We have no idea where it came from.”

Typically, the norovirus is spread through human contact or infected food, health department officials said. With symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting, the virus, described as “highly contagious,” typically lasts no more than about 48 hours. None of the guests who showed norovirus symptoms were sent to the hospital, Addo-Ayensu said. Deuel added that, to the best of his knowledge, no Hyatt employees came down with the virus. “The management team has been here all week,” he said, laughing. “And we are all OK.”

On Monday, June 9, a week after initial reports trickled into his office, Deuel did his best to reassure the public that, once his hotel reopened, it would be safe for guests. “We haven’t had any cases since last Thursday, so this is fairly well eradicated and the building is empty so all we need to do now is get in there and make sure we finish the cleaning job,” he said. “This is just taking us a little longer than we anticipated.”

As of Tuesday, state and county health officials had yet to determine the source of the Hyatt outbreak. “They may never be known,” Deuel said on Sunday.

While the cause remained a mystery, Fairfax County health officials stressed the importance of hand washing as a preventative measure. “Frequent and thorough hand washing is the best prevention,” Addo-Ayensu said.

ON FRIDAY, BEFORE initial tests from the county confirmed the presence of norovirus, Deuel maintained that the source of the outbreak did not come from inside his hotel. With tests still being conducted, county and state health officials could neither confirm nor disprove the statement. However, county inspectors gave the hotel’s kitchen a clean bill of health, said Kathy Simmons, a county spokesperson.

As late as Friday afternoon Deuel, who is also the president of the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, maintained that the hotel would not be shut down. “It’s a non-story,” Deuel said on Friday, four days after he fielded the first complaints from members of the two wedding parties.

What followed was an eventual firestorm of unwanted publicity that made headlines from coast to coast. “We were on CNN over the weekend,” Deuel said, on Monday. “It must have been a slow news week.”

IN AN INTERVIEW Friday afternoon, county officials confirmed they were investigating nearly 60 cases, most from two wedding receptions the previous weekend held at the hotel.

By 8 p.m. Friday, county officials confirmed that stool samples submitted by some stricken hotel guests confirmed county officials' suspicions that they were dealing with the norovirus, Simmons said.

On Friday night, Deuel shut the doors to the Dulles area hotel while making contingency plans for the hotels’ guests and groups. Events like the Herndon High School prom, along with many guests, were quickly relocated down the Dulles Toll Road to the Hyatt Regency Reston.

With less than a day to work, school officials and parents worked long hours to make sure the prom went on without a hitch. "All things considered, it went off really well. If you didn't know any different, no one would have ever known," said prom organizer John Werner, the junior class assistant principal.

In addition to the prom, two church groups and a retirement party scheduled for the weekend were shipped to other Hyatt hotels in the vicinity, Deuel said. A few guests chose to remain at the hotel over the weekend. “They were all in the same group and we had them all staying in a disinfected wing,” the general manager said.

On Friday, 85 rooms were occupied but by the weekend, only about a dozen were filled according to hotel officials.

Deuel said the disease which he and health officials described as “minor” is the same that has plagued the cruise ship industry in recent months. Because it is “very contagious” and it is passed from “person-to-person,” it is not uncommon for the norovirus to spread around buildings like hotels, schools and churches, Addo-Ayensu said.

Addo-Ayensu also took time out to praise Deuel and his staff for their quick response to last week’s developments.

“We took the first step to close the doors,” Deuel said. “When we got the word from the county on Friday, we thought closing the hotel was the best course of action.”

Deuel said he was confident that the long-range effects on his hotel would be minimal thanks to the rapid response of his staff and the county health department. “I hate to think what would have happened if we hadn’t acted as quickly as we did,” he said.