by Mary Ann Bragg, September 8, 2017
WELLFLEET — Nearly a year after the town’s $5.8 million shellfish industry came to an abrupt halt for 33 days due to a rare norovirus outbreak that sickened 75 wedding guests and restaurant patrons on the Outer Cape, industry workers, regulators and local leaders say attitudes have changed.
“People’s consciousness got raised big time,” Wellfleet Selectman Helen Miranda Wilson said. “The harbor has a nice big tidal exchange twice a day so it rinses out pretty well, but now, despite that, people are way more careful.”
While norovirus outbreaks occur frequently in the U.S., with 1,229 reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past year in nine states, including Massachusetts, shellfish workers in Wellfleet call last year’s local outbreak highly unusual.
Shellfish farmer Robert Wallace said he hasn’t seen a norovirus incident in 35 years in Wellfleet.
“These things, these episodes, are very, very rare,” shellfisherman Andrew Cummings said.
From 1998 to 2015, CDC data showed one norovius outbreak in Massachusetts related to oyster consumption. That outbreak caused 32 illnesses.
After searching the harbor for possible sources of the 2016 norovirus contamination in Wellfleet, state officials narrowed it down to a likely one-time introduction of the very contagious virus into town waters by the “overboard discharge of infected waste of bodily fluids.”
A norovirus outbreak occurs when a person who is infected spreads the virus to others, or if someone eats or touches contaminated food such as leafy greens, fresh fruits or raw shellfish. The top locations for norovirus outbreaks are long-term care and other health care facilities, restaurants and catered events, schools and cruise ships.
Hand-washing is the single most important method to prevent norovirus infection and to control transmission.
During the outbreak in Wellfleet, which was announced Oct. 13, local and state public health officials received more than 125 reports of illness after consumption of Wellfleet-harvested raw oysters between Oct. 1 and Oct. 14, with the majority consumed on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9. The virus was identified from the stool samples of three people who did not eat at the same event, according the state Department of Public Health.
Using shellfish tags in retail outlets that identify where the oysters were picked, areas in Wellfleet Harbor and Loagy Bay, in South Wellfleet, were linked to the outbreak. While state Division of Marine Fisheries officials identified some aquaculture grants where oysters contaminated with norovirus were harvested, the locations and names of the grant holders were withheld due to confidentiality rules, according to the state.
Since state officials reopened the harbor to shellfishing Nov. 14, additional preventive measures have been taken on the Cape and industry-wide, state and local officials said.
“The Division of Marine Fisheries is committed to supporting the shellfish industry and ensuring all shellfish consumed in Massachusetts is safe to eat,” said Katie Gronendyke, spokeswoman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.
In training sessions held Nov. 9 and June 15, Wellfleet shellfishermen were taught about safe harvest and handling practices, according to the state.
Each harvest boat must have a proper sanitation device or container with a tight-fitting cover, which must be kept in a way to prevent contamination of shellstock by spilling or leaking. Each sanitation container must have the words “HUMAN WASTE” in a minimum of 3-inch lettering. The containers must be emptied only into a sewage disposal system and cleaned; human waste in the buckets cannot be tossed overboard.
Wellfleet Shellfish Promotion and Tasting (SPAT), the nonprofit group that runs the annual Wellfleet OysterFest, bought 120 buckets with waterproof “Human Waste” stickers and began distributing them for free at the June training, said Michele Insley, the organization’s executive director. The buckets cost SPAT $1,750, Insley said.
“It’s kind of a hard thing to say to the public,” Insley said. “It’s for if you have a sour tummy, in case you can’t get off your grant and go to the restroom.”
One of new shellfish constable Nancy Civetta’s first actions was to visit shellfish grants and remind farmers that they need to use the buckets, said shellfisherman Jake Puffer, a member of the town’s shellfish advisory board and a SPAT board member.
Puffer said his company already makes sure employees have access to bathrooms.
“If someone gets sick at least they can get sick in the bucket,” Civetta said.
This year, the town added one year-round portable toilet at Powers Landing, west of the town pier and Mayo Beach, at the request of shellfishermen, with an additional one available during the summer, Beach Administrator Suzanne Thomas said.
State officials also gave public presentations in April in Tisbury, Eastham and Plymouth about preventing disease outbreaks and the sanitation bucket requirement. All commercial fishermen have to sign a Safe Harvesting, Handling and Transport Affidavit prior to receiving state permits, which includes the requirement that each harvest boat have a sanitation device that is handled in a safe way. The affidavit as it reads now has been in place since 2015, Gronendyke said.
In addition to offering technical assistance to towns and cities, and education to shellfishermen, the state addressed economic issues. SPAT has been awarded $20,500 for a pilot education and tasting event in Boston to revive and increase market share for Wellfleet oysters and clams, state officials said.
Last year, SPAT saw about a 20 to 25 percent loss in attendance at OysterFest, which opened two days after the town’s shellfish beds were closed. On the closure date, all oysters, hard shell clams, soft shell clams, mussels and razor clams picked in the previous 18 days were recalled, affecting 47 growers and 13 dealers.
Moreover, harvesters saw the sale of their products slow through the end of last year, Wallace said.
But there was a rebound in the spring.
“The market has a short memory,” he said. “We’re back to full strength.”
Last year’s experience with norovirus has brought a new level of alertness for harvesters about what’s going on at their grant and at nearby grants, Cummings said. Oyster harvesters are on their toes right now anyway with state vibrio regulations, in place through Oct. 16, requiring adequate icing for product that is going to market, Wallace said.
As SPAT prepares for this year’s OysterFest, scheduled for Oct. 14-15, the group plans to raise public awareness about the life cycle of oysters and other shellfish, as a farm product affected by nature. SPAT will offer more opportunities this year for shellfishmen to sell their product even if they aren’t a large enough operation to have their own stand.
“I see a lot of very willing fishermen working hard and doing what they need to do to make sure they bring a safe product and a healthy product to market,” Civetta said.
— Follow Mary Ann Bragg on Twitter: @maryannbraggCCT