By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Health Writer
March 16, 2004

The number of people who have reported coming down with gastrointestinal problems from visits to Las Vegas since Dec. 3 has climbed to 1,174, Nevada health officials said.

But officials said there was a slight decline in the number of stomach-flu-like illnesses last week.

Although health officials declined to provide a week-by-week breakdown of the cases, the good news is that the tally was down to 74 cases for the week of March 5-12, Clark County Health District spokesman Dave Tonelli said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” Tonelli said.

The outbreak of gastroenteritis is being blamed on a Norwalk virus, or norovirus, linked to the California Hotel and Casino in downtown Las Vegas.

To deal with the problem, Boyd Gaming Co., which owns the hotel, ramped up cleaning procedures in recent weeks, including hourly bathroom cleaning, using hospital-grade disinfectant and urging guests and employees to wash their hands more frequently. But some new cases still are being reported.

The illness, which usually shows up as fever, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, has inconvenienced many and ruined vacation getaways. But because it’s a virus, health officials said there are no treatments or medications to cure it. The illness usually goes away after a day or two.

Officials recommend drinking water, getting a lot of rest and eating healthy, not normally habits associated with one of Hawai’i’s favorite vacation destinations, which specializes in around-the-clock gambling, eating and drinking.

Erin Uyeda, a 25-year-old Makiki resident, said she took ill a day after she returned home from a brief vacation earlier this month.

Uyeda said she now knows that the hotel, airline and travel officials were aware of the outbreak before her trip.

“I believe it could have been more controlled if these companies had better warned their customers to take precautions,” she said.

Uyeda hopes other travelers will be more cautious.

“This will definitely affect my future travel plans. I probably will look for a different travel agency, stay at a different hotel and fly a different airline.”

Boyd spokesman Rob Stillwell said the hotels are committed to the intense cleaning and will continue it even after the health department officially says the outbreak is over.

“These aren’t just temporary measures,” he said. “We don’t ever want to be in this position again.”

Stillwell said the company is getting calls from worried travelers, most asking for information about what precautions are being taken, but a few who are canceling plans.

He said he believes the hotel is over the worst period.

Tonelli partly attributed the big leap in the number of cases to media coverage of the outbreak, particularly in Hawai’i, which prompted additional hotel/casino customers to report illnesses that had gone unreported during December, January and February.

Omni Air International managing director Chuck Pollard yesterday that said the plane that carries visitors from Honolulu to Las Vegas six times a week now is being cleaned during flights. Pollard said the company took the unusual step because of the illness and complaints about the restrooms.

“We are having a cleaner on-board cleaning the restrooms mid-flight,” he said.

Pollard said travelers may have their flights delayed because of the thorough cleaning of the plane between flights. Normally, he said the plane leaves about 90 minutes after arrival. Now, he said that is being postponed an extra hour.

He said the captains are making a brief announcement about the special cleaning.

Tonelli urged visitors to remain vigilant against the illness.

“It is not uncommon in norovirus outbreaks for a decline to be followed by a resurgence,” he said.

Clark County Health District epidemiology officials said that means they won’t say this outbreak is over until they see a sustained decline over a one-month period.

Health officials remind guests of any hotel to promptly report incidents of illness to the hotel staff so that the room can be properly cleaned and disinfected to protect others from getting sick.

Ray Kamaka, 64, of Waikane, said he got sick in September from an illness that sounds just like the norovirus.

He said the illness affected him for four days in Las Vegas.

“I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “I thought I was going to die.”

Kamaka returned home dehydrated and eventually got better. He believes many more people probably got sick but didn’t report the illness because they just thought they had some kind of travelers’ illness.

But Kamaka said he doesn’t think the threat of a virus will slow down the bulk of Hawai’i’s Vegas fans.

“They love to gamble, so they’re going to take the chance,” he said.

Kamaka usually goes to Las Vegas about three times a year. He said he will still go, but he’s worried about visitors older and more frail than he is.

“We get a lot of old folks going up there,” he said. “If it hits them, it could really hit ’em hard.”

If you have traveled to Las Vegas recently and gotten sick with the symptoms of stomach flu, officials ask that you call the Clark County Health Department’s epidemiology section at (702) 383-1378.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at or 535-2429.