Harrison County

‘Likely it’s an E. coli’ in Captain Al’s illness outbreak, official says

A sign posted at Captain Al’s Steak & Shrimp in Gulfport on Wednesday says the restaurant is closed for remodeling. The Mississippi Department of Health closed the restaurant on Jan. 3 after multiple customers complained of illness after eating there.
A sign posted at Captain Al’s Steak & Shrimp in Gulfport on Wednesday says the restaurant is closed for remodeling. The Mississippi Department of Health closed the restaurant on Jan. 3 after multiple customers complained of illness after eating there. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

A bacterial infection appears to be what caused people to become ill after eating at Captain Al’s Steak & Shrimp in Gulfport during the holidays, Paul Byers, state epidemiologist at the Health Department, said Wednesday.

“Likely it’s an E. coli,” he said, “one of those not routinely identified (through testing).”

The Health Department closed the restaurant at 11268 Lorraine Road on Jan. 3 after reports that 40 people became ill after eating there. After the Sun Herald reported on the illnesses Tuesday, the department heard from “a whole lot more folks who have identified illness,” Byers said.

Although the agency hasn’t identified the specific food or cause of the infection, “we do have an epidemiological link between the illness in the patrons and eating at the restaurant,” he said. “One of our primary goals is to interrupt transmission.”

After the agency got reports of illnesses potentially associated with the restaurant, he said, they quickly worked to investigate and ultimately close the restaurant.

“It was a matter of days,” he said.

The owners of the restaurant are being very cooperative, Byers said, and the Health Department is working with them to get Captain Al’s ready to safely reopen. Meanwhile, he said people who are ill should see their doctor rather than speculating whether their problems are related to eating at the restaurant.

Immediately after the Sun Herald posted the report, people started calling, emailing and commenting on the Sun Herald Facebook page, linking their symptoms to the restaurant.

“It was eight days of pure gastrointestinal hell,” one commenter said.

Others said they’ve still got problems more than two weeks after eating at the restaurant.

“I haven’t been this sick since I was a child,” said Carla Farmer, who ate at the restaurant Dec. 19 and became ill the next day. She ordered crab salad and Salisbury steak, the same foods others who got sick reported eating.

I haven’t been this sick since I was a child.

Carla Farmer, restaurant patron

Farmer said she is most angered by the notice on the restaurant door that Captain Al’s is “closed for a remodeling” and asks why the owners would post such a thing when their customers became so violently ill.

Dr. Andrew Nakamoto, an emergency physician at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, said the ER department didn’t record a spike in complaints of stomach problems at the end of December.

Nakamoto said he personally feels he’s seen more patients come in recently complaining of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but none told him they had eaten at Captain Al’s.

He tells his patients to make sure they stay hydrated and maintain proper hygiene by washing hands 10 to 15 seconds with soap and water. He said the ER physicians do not recommend anti-diarrhea medicine because diarrhea is the body’s way of trying to get rid of the virus. Those who have to go to work can take the medicine, but he said it will make the symptoms last longer.

The problems began about Dec. 17, according to customers who contacted the Sun Herald, and continued through Dec. 30. The owners of Captain Al’s did not comment when contacted by the Sun Herald.

Randall Rogers said he had the restaurant’s famous crab salad with ranch dressing and steak Dec. 19. A day later, he drove to visit family in Nashville for the holidays and said, “My family ended up taking me to the hospital, I was so bad off.”

He was treated at the emergency room for food poisoning and was given antibiotics and three bags of intravenous fluid because he had become so dehydrated. None of the 14 people who were with him for more than a week got sick.

“Just me,” he said. “It was the worst Christmas and New Year’s of my life.”

Rogers said he had eaten at Captain Al’s the week before his Dec. 19 visit, and everything was fine. But he doesn’t plan to return.

“As good as the food has been in the past, I just can’t do it,” he said.

A woman said she reported to the restaurant that she and her husband had gotten sick after eating there with her family but received “no apology, no accountability” from the person she spoke to.

Another woman said her friend repeatedly went to the ER over the past two weeks thinking she was having a gallbladder attack or heart attack. Her friend never suspected it may have been the crab salad she ate at Captain Al’s, she said.

Loyal customers defended Captain Al’s on social media and said the restaurant is always clean and the food good.

“Stuff happens — even to good businesses,” one commenter said. “Look at Blue Bell, they had a scare … still good ice cream that people love.”