Grand Junction, Colo. – The Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction closed all 46 schools and sent students home Thursday after a suspected outbreak of norovirus affected at least 13 different schools last week.
“Our first reports came in from Palisade High School,” said Amanda Mayle, Communications and Marketing Manager for Mesa County Public Health in an interview with Complete Colorado Friday. “We then saw it immediately spread to the feeder middle schools. It then trickled down to some elementary schools in the area, but we did see reports across the valley, but they were all within our school district.”
The number of students who became ill was not available. Mayle said they don’t get individual student information. Rather, they look for trends in absenteeism.
“Ten percent absenteeism is when public health notification first occurs and typical anywhere above that 10% up to 25% is when the schools start to look at closing down facilities,” said Mayle.
While the precise identification of the bug has not yet been determined, Mayle said the main symptoms being reported are vomiting with some diarrhea. “We are still looking for samples to test to complete that lab confirmation,” said Mayle.
Such outbreaks are not uncommon, with 150 to 200 suspected outbreaks reported in Colorado each year.
According to the CDC, norovirus is the “most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S.”
The virus is highly contagious and can survive and remain infectious on surfaces for days or weeks, so decontamination is critical to stopping the spread.
Nationwide 19 to 21 million people suffer infections and 56,000 to 71,000 require hospitalization, mostly young children and the elderly.
There are about 570 to 800 deaths per year.
“Norovirus outbreaks are common throughout the country, especially this time a year when we all congregate together. This outbreak is acting like a virus in that symptoms come on very quickly,” Mayle continued. “Folks report the symptoms anywhere between 12 and 24 hours.”
The CDC says, “it only takes a very small amount of norovirus particles to make you sick,” and people are contagious “from the moment you begin feeling sick and for the first few days after you recover.”
Schools are being disinfected during the break, which will last until after Thanksgiving.
“This is a real hardy virus,” said Mayle. “Washing your hands with soap or water if it’s available, or if you don’t have access to soap and water an alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be important. Cleaning surfaces and checking labels and looking for cleaners that are effective against Norovirus is very important.”
There are no vaccines or antibiotics that will help. It’s important, says the CDC, to drink plenty of liquids to prevent dehydration, and if you or someone you are caring for becomes dehydrated, call a doctor.
If you are in contact with someone who is ill, particularly if they vomit or have diarrhea, the particles of norovirus can become airborne and travel up to 25 feet. Wearing a surgical or filter mask or covering your nose and mouth with your elbow while getting away from the area will help prevent infection.
Incidents of public vomiting are of particular concern with this virus says Mayle, “We’re seeing it come on relatively quickly and people not be able to get to a trash can or a bathroom.”
Being aware of how viral illnesses spread and how to prevent it can help stop outbreaks.
“We’re asking folks if they are not feeling well or have been around family members who had these symptoms and might have been exposed to it to limit their contact with others,” said Mayle. “And if you are sick stay home until you’re symptom free for at least 24 hours.”
While norovirus outbreaks are more of a nuisance than a danger, that is not always the case.
The recommendations for recognizing and dealing with norovirus to prevent its spread becomes critical with more deadly viral outbreaks.
A pandemic in 1968 caused by an influenza A virus caused an estimated 100,000 deaths in the United States and about 1 million worldwide.
Another pandemic caused by an entirely new flu virus struck in 2009, causing more than 60 million cases and 12,469 deaths in the U.S.
The CDC says that globally, 80% of the deaths in the 2009 pandemic occurred in people younger than 65. Typical seasonal influenza death tolls occur 70% to 90% in people 65 years and older.
Flu shots are recommended, particularly for older people, but the vaccines don’t always match the seasonal versions of the flu virus so effectiveness can vary if the strains predicted don’t match the ones that occur.