Sacramento elder care facilities combating norovirus outbreaks

12/28/2011 12:00 AM

12/28/2011 6:55 AM

Sacramento County public health officials said Tuesday that residents of elder care facilities have tested positive for the norovirus, a highly contagious illness that's especially hard on the elderly and the very young.

"This is fairly common this time of year," said Dr. Laurie Werner, interim public health officer for Sacramento County. "It is not unusual to have this amount of norovirus activity in facilities."

She said the norovirus is now present in both skilled nursing and assisted living facilities. As of Tuesday, there have been six confirmed cases in three different facilities.

"However, we have a total of seven facilities that have been affected by the symptoms of norovirus," said Werner. "And a total 174 people, including residents and staff, have been affected by a viral illness that includes gastrointestinal symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Norovirus causes 90 percent of the illnesses like that."

The most common symptoms associated with the virus are diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. The sickness is often called by other names such as stomach flu and viral gastroenteritis, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A low-grade fever sometimes occurs, according to the CDC. Children are more prone to suffer from diarrhea than vomiting, and dehydration is a common problem, especially for small children and older people. Norovirus usually lasts from one to five days.

Werner said county elder care facilities should have a notice posted if they are affected by an outbreak.

"Norovirus is extremely infectious," she said, adding that washing hands and clothes is important to help prevent the disease's spread.

Officials at Mercy McMahon Terrace senior living center in east Sacramento did not know Tuesday morning if ill residents there had been affected by norovirus. Samples from patients had been sent to the county to make a determination. The cases have been mild, said Mercy spokeswoman Barbara Schor.

Out of 85 residents, 15 became ill last week with vomiting and diarrhea. Most are now feeling better, but two residents still have symptoms and are being monitored. Group activities were curtailed and the facility was disinfected.

The CDC estimates that more than 21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis each year are caused by norovirus.

Among 232 outbreaks reported to the CDC from 1997 to 2000, the majority were foodborne. Among those outbreaks, common settings were restaurants and catered events, nursing homes, schools, vacation spots and cruise ships.

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