Laboratory tests have turned up a potential new culprit in the outbreak of illness that affected at least 126 people who went to a Thunder Bay-area restaurant.

The district health unit is looking into the cause of an illness that struck some people who visited This Old Barn last weekend. Christopher Beveridge, manager of environmental health for the district health unit, said Thursday that norovirus was found in a stool sample from a patient admitted to hospital.

He said norovirus is a "very common virus within intestinal flora and is common in outbreak settings."

However, Beveridge said investigators are not ruling out water issues as a possible cause.

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The owner of This Old Barn said he has been in business for 17 years, and has never had a problem like this. (Google Maps)

"We're not ruling out water just yet, because norovirus can survive in a water environment," Beveridge said. "But now we're looking at more of the food handling, as well. Where earlier in the week with the contaminated water sample we were really looking at the water system."

Earlier health unit tests found E. coli in the water.

Beveridge said the department wasn't ruling out the possibility that both E. coli and norovirus could have been involved.

"If that's the case, then we have a bit more work to do."

Restaurant owner apologizes

Michael Ellchook, the owner of This Old Barn, has apologized to all those who got sick. He said he has operated the restaurant for 17 years, and has never before had a problem like this.

"They found E. coli levels are a little bit high, so I'm figuring it's got to do with the water. We had a storm on the weekend.  And being a well — we have a well system — I'm thinking that's where most of it came from," Ellchook said earlier in the day.

He said he hopes to reopen soon.

Beveridge said inspectors still have more work to do.

"We ordered it closed until all legislative requirements are satisfied.  And the operator is being very co-operative and assisting us in our investigation," Beveridge said.

He said 256 people ate or drank at the restaurant between May 11 and May 13. The health unit has contacted 208 of these people and is trying to reach the remainder to get information to assist in the investigation.

"We're working with the health unit and going through everything," Ellchook said.

"We're getting our water problems fixed up by the end of the weekend at the latest," he said.

"I do business [all over the area], catering weddings almost as far as Upsala, and toward the border, and out to Pass Lake, and I've never had this problem.

"I feel bad for everybody that was sick. I very much apologize for all that. But I hope to see them again another day."

The health unit became aware of the situation after being contacted by emergency-room staff the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre, where 12 people were admitted with E. coli infection symptoms.

Beveridge said he is not aware of anyone being critically ill.