PROVO — Health departments in Utah and Salt Lake counties confirmed recent outbreaks of norovirus or a similar gastrointestinal illness in several long-term care facilities.
"We had some long-term care facilities that had large numbers," said Jennifer Hatfield, an epidemiology investigator and nurse with the Utah County Health Department. "That's the concern because it spreads so easily, it's highly infectious, when it gets into a congregate setting it spreads fast."
Hatfield said the Utah County outbreak of norovirus included five care facilities and occurred from late March through April. A total of 288 cases were reported. Four people had to be hospitalized and one person died.
Of those cases, 156 were residents of those facilities and 132 were employees — which raises the likelihood that the illness spread to the general population.
Hatfield said symptoms from norovirus typically only last about 24 hours but that it can be a very rough 24 hours.
"I call it the fast and furious GI illness," Hatfield said, "and the reason I do is vomiting can come on suddenly no matter where you are and along with diarrhea —and for lack of better words the symptoms are pretty violent."
In Salt Lake County, the health department reports that since March they've had three gastrointestinal illness clusters with norovirus-like symptoms at long-term care facilities. There were a total of 82 cases and two hospitalizations.
"Norovirus is kind of always looming," said Dede Vilven, an epidemiologist with the Salt Lake County Health Department.
Overall, Vilven said Salt Lake County has seen an uptick in reports of gastrointestinal illnesses over the last month and that handwashing is key to stopping the spread.
Vilven said norovirus can be easily transferred through food and that those who prepare food or serve food should isolate themselves.
"Really pay attention to how you're feeling," Vilven said. "If you don't feel good stay home."
Norovirus is not a reportable disease, so labs and doctors don't report cases to local health departments. Even so, Vilven encourages residents to report their symptoms through the state's "I Got Sick" online reporting tool.
I call it the fast and furious GI illness.
–Jennifer Hatfield, an epidemiology investigator and nurse with the Utah County Health Department
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food and water can get contaminated with norovirus if an infected person has feces or vomit particles on them and touches the food or if the food is placed on a surface that has feces or vomit particles on it.
"Norovirus can easily contaminate food and water because it only takes a very small amount of virus particles to make you sick," said the CDC's website.
Also, the CDC said that drops of vomit from an infected person can travel in the air and land on food or surfaces.
Those who do become sick with vomiting or diarrhea should drink plenty of fluids to help prevent dehydration.
"Watch for signs of dehydration in children who have norovirus illness. Children who are dehydrated may cry with few or no tears and be unusually sleepy or fussy," according to the CDC's website. "If you think you or someone you are caring for is severely dehydrated, call your health care provider."
"Because of the circumstances with elderly and infants there is the possibility that it could be fatal for them or hospitalize them," Hatfield said.