From New Mexico to Minnesota, numerous cases of the highly contagious norovirus have been reported in recent weeks. Today, 30 people fell ill with the sickness at a Duluth, MN, restaurant, marking the latest outbreak. The incident follows a larger occurrence of norovirus that took place on board a New Zealand cruise ship and infected 200 passengers with the ailment commonly referred to as the stomach flu. The ship, the Dawn Princess, is owned by Princess Cruises, a division of Miami-based Carnival Corporation. Princess Cruises officials have encouraged affected passengers to remain in their cabins, and have enacted strict disinfectant protocols.
Previous Norovirus Outbreaks
In November, another norovirus outbreak aboard the Princess Cruises ship the Crown Princess infected at least 172 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The Crown Princess had sailed from Los Angeles to Hawaii and Tahiti on a 28-day journey. The virus, which can spread more easily in closed quarters, is a frequent problem for cruise ships in particular. More than 150 passengers and crew from the Crown Princess were sickened with norovirus in April, and in January more than 600 people on cruise ships sailing the Caribbean fell ill with the virus.
Of course, norovirus also affects many people on land. San Mateo County health officials have confirmed that at least 60 guests and employees at the luxury Hotel Sofitel in Redwood City, California contracted the virus sometime after October 28. In response to the norovirus outbreak, San Mateo County’s Environmental Health Services inspected the hotel’s food operations and found no violations that could have led to food-borne illness. After disinfecting and training staff, the hotel’s food services reopened. Officials have noted that most of the individuals who contracted the virus were temporary guests of the hotel who are no longer in the area.
How Is Norovirus Spread?
Norovirus spreads after contact with infected people or contaminated food or water, making it highly infectious. Symptoms include stomach pain, nausea and diarrhea. The gastrointestinal illness typically lasts one to three days. Each year, the norovirus causes 19-21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis (inflammation of the stomach or intestines or both) and contributes to about 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths, mostly among young children and the elderly.
Norovirus is the leading cause of illness and outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States: about 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illness are caused by norovirus. Foods most commonly involved in outbreaks of norovirus illness include: leafy green, such as lettuce; fresh fruits; and shellfish, such as oysters. In addition to cruise ships, the most common norovirus outbreak settings are restaurants, catered events, healthcare facilities, schools and other institutional settings.
Norovirus Outbreak Prevention
The best means of norovirus prevention begins with proper hand hygiene. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, particularly after using the toilet or changing diapers. Norovirus can be found in your stool even before you start feeling sick, and can remain for two weeks or more after you feel better, so it is important that you wash your hands often. In a pinch, you can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers as a safety measure, but they should not be used as a substitute for soap and water when looking to avoid contracting norovirus. Individuals working in the food service industry should be particularly vigilant about hand-washing, and anyone who has contracted the virus should not prepare food for others until at least 48 hours after the symptoms stop. When preparing food, rinse fruits and vegetables carefully and cook shellfish thoroughly. Be extra cautious when it comes to norovirus disinfection as these germs are fairly resistant and can survive temperatures as high as 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Individuals can also contract the virus from contaminated surfaces, so be sure to thoroughly clean and disinfect any such surfaces. Wear rubber or disposable gloves when handling any potentially soiled clothes or linens and wash at the maximum available cycle.
Health officials at the CDC note that it is currently the cold and flu season, when stomach flu circulates more widely on land. For your own sake and for the sake of those around you, be sure to take these norovirus precautions to stay germ-free during any potential outbreaks.