March 3, 2012

Norovirus outbreaks spread in South Carolina

When norovirus hits, it’s time to activate the cleaning crews.

When norovirus hits, it’s time to activate the cleaning crews.

And there’s been a lot of disinfecting going on in recent weeks with nearly four times the typical number of norovirus outbreaks this year, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Commonly referred to as stomach flu, norovirus typically shows up more in the winter and causes diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Symptoms usually last a couple of days but seldom lead to more serious problems.

Episodes often hit places where people congregate, such as schools, nursing homes and prisons. One of this year’s outbreaks was at McCormick Correctional Institution in McCormick County, where there were six lab-confirmed cases and another 20 individuals who were treated for stomach problems.

The prison staff “breaks out the Clorox bleach and water mixture and washes down any surface people could come into contact with, walls in the common areas, door knobs,” said state prisons spokesman Clark Newsom.

Norovirus, which can be contracted from poorly handled food but often is passed person-to-person, survives well on hard surfaces but is easily killed by thorough cleaning. The other key to controlling an outbreak is keeping those who are sick away from those who are healthy. That was relatively easy in the prison, where the six confirmed to have norovirus slept several nights in the prison gym.

State epidemiologist Dr. Jerry Gibson said increased awareness of how to deal with the virus has shortened the length of outbreaks. Symptoms often used to linger for three or four weeks. Many of the outbreaks this year have been recognized quickly and under control within a week to 10 days. The McCormick prison was back to normal in less than two weeks, Newsom said.

Outbreaks are clusters of cases, usually at one site and often involving dozens of individuals. The 33 outbreaks in the first eight weeks of 2012 are about four times the usual number, according to DHEC records.

The end-of-the-week update Feb. 24 listed 20 active outbreaks of gastro-intestinal viruses (including norovirus, salmonella and others), the most Gibson could recall at one time since DHEC began compiling a weekly list nearly a decade ago. On Friday, the number of active outbreaks was down to 12.

Norovirus behaves slightly differently every year. This year, it appears to be hitting adults harder than young people, Gibson said. Many of the 33 reported outbreaks in the first eight weeks were in nursing homes.

Stomach flu has hit at about normal rates in Midlands school districts, according to district officials. Of course, many schools are set up to stem outbreaks before they happen.

“We have registered nurses in all our schools,” said Mary Beth Hill, spokeswoman for Lexington 1 schools. “They always monitor very closely any illnesses going around and make sure that students who have symptoms go home and stay home to stop the spread of any illness.

“The only thing really noteworthy about (norovirus this year) is that our nurses are reporting that it seems to hit parents and staff (adults) harder than it does the students.”

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