The beleaguered Illinois Veterans’ Home in Quincy (IVHQ) continues to make headlines for all the wrong reasons. The latest: The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reports that two dozen residents and staff members are battling a gastrointestinal illness believed to be caused by norovirus.
Earlier this year, IVHQ officials announced that they were dealing with a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak for the fourth consecutive year. Since 2015, 13 residents have died from the deadly respiratory illness.
In this latest incident, 24 people have experienced vomiting and diarrhea, which has health officials suspecting the outbreak is a result of norovirus. Tests are pending to confirm the theory.
All 24 cases involve people from one building. Everyone who took ill is recovering; no serious illnesses were recorded.
The IDPH sent inspectors to the IVHQ to examine the kitchen and gather data on those sickened.
Health-care facilities are the most commonly reported settings for norovirus outbreaks because of increased person-to-person contact.
What is norovirus?
Norovirus – also known as the “winter vomiting bug” – is a highly contagious virus that can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea, according to the Mayo Clinic. The virus is commonly spread through food or water contaminated during preparation. It also can be picked up from contaminated surfaces or from close contact with an infected person.
Norovirus is one of the leading causes of foodborne illness in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates that, on average, norovirus:
- causes 19 million to 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach and intestines), and
- contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations
- and 570-800 deaths, mostly among young children and older adults.
Worldwide, norovirus is responsible for 685 million cases every year, 200 million of which affect children younger than 5.
Diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting typically begin 12 to 48 hours after exposure. Symptoms can last up to three days.
Most people recover without treatment. However, for some people — especially infants, older adults, and people with the underlying disease — vomiting and diarrhea can be severely dehydrating and require medical attention.
Norovirus infection occurs most frequently in closed and crowded environments, such as hospitals, nursing homes, child-care centers, schools, and cruise ships.
What causes norovirus?
Noroviruses are highly contagious and are shed in the feces of infected humans and animals. Methods of transmission include:
- eating contaminated food
- drinking contaminated water
- touching your hand to your mouth after your hand has been in contact with a contaminated surface or object
- being in close contact with a person who has a norovirus infection.
Noroviruses are difficult to wipe out because they can withstand hot and cold temperatures as well as most disinfectants.
Who is most at risk?
Risk factors for becoming infected with norovirus include:
- eating in a place where food is handled with unsanitary procedures
- living in close quarters, such as in nursing homes
- having contact with someone who has norovirus infection
- staying in hotels, resorts, cruise ships or other destinations with many people in close quarters
- attending preschool or a child-care center.
What are the symptoms?
Signs and symptoms of norovirus infection can include:
- low-grade fever
- abdominal pain or cramps
- watery or loose diarrhea
- malaise (that is, a general feeling of discomfort)
- muscle pain.
What is the treatment?
There is no specific medicine to treat a norovirus illness. Norovirus infection cannot be treated with antibiotics because it is a viral infection, not bacterial.
Drinking plenty of water to replace lost fluid will help prevent dehydration. Sports drinks and other drinks high in electrolytes also can help with mild dehydration. (Caffeine and alcohol should be avoided.)
These drinks, however, might not replace necessary nutrients and minerals. Oral rehydration fluids, which can be purchased at pharmacies, are more helpful.
How does one avoid norovirus?
To help prevent spread of norovirus, it is advisable to:
- Wash hands frequently and thoroughly (use soap and running water for 20 seconds), especially after using the bathroom, changing a diaper, and before preparing food.
- Avoid contaminated food and water, including food that may have been prepared by someone who was sick.
- Avoid bare-hand contact with ready-to-eat foods.
- Wash fruits and vegetables before eating.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces contaminated by vomiting or diarrhea (use a chlorine bleach-based household cleaner). In addition, wear gloves while cleaning.
- Clean and disinfect food-preparation equipment and surfaces.
- Cook seafood thoroughly.
- Dispose of vomit and fecal matter carefully, to avoid spreading norovirus by air. Soak up material with disposable towels and place them in plastic garbage bags.
- Stay home from work, especially if your job involves handling food. You may be contagious as long as three days after your symptoms end. Children should stay home from school or their child-care facility.
- Avoid traveling until signs and symptoms of norovirus have ended.