Norovirus Outbreak in Boston: Wash Your Damn Hands

In the past week, over 400 students and teachers in the Boston area have contracted norovirus, which causes nausea, vomitting and diarrhea:

"In close settings like a school or a nursing home or a family, the failure to adequately follow good hygiene will manifest itself with spread of this type of disease," said Dr. Bela Matyas of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

At Simmons, the outbreak traveled swiftly, although it was not concentrated in any single location, said Dr. Kay Petersen , medical director of the college's health center. To stem the spread, e-mails were sent to students and staff urging them to wash their hands and to stay home if they developed symptoms.

Hand washing is critical with norovirus: The germ is carried in stool, and it takes only a small amount of the virus to spark a cluster of illness.

The college also sanitized dining halls and bathrooms in an attempt to eliminate any trace of the virus.

"We at one point designated one bathroom in the health service for people who were sick and the other bathroom for people who weren't sick, to minimize any exposure," said Petersen, who added that in her nearly two decades at Simmons she has never witnessed so many students stricken at one time with a stomach bug.

Tara has discussed norovirus outbreaks before, so I'll leave that bit up to her. On this blog, I regularly encourage handwashing and other public hygiene measures because these measures decrease the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. I think this norovirus outbreak completely supports that argument.

But wait Mad Biologist, norovirus is a virus. How does reducing viral infections reduce antibiotic use? Imagine if this virus didn't cause stomach illness, but respiratory problems, such as bronchitis. Many of these patients would go to the doctor, where their viral illness would be misdiagnosed as a bacterial illness, and they would be prescribed antibiotics when they don't need them. All of the bacteria living in and on that person would be exposed to the antibiotic, and this would select antibiotic resistant bacteria.

So, please, wash your hands.

Update: It sounds like there has been another norovirus outbreak at an Olive Garden in Indianapolis. A worker who had flu-like symptoms similar to those patrons complained of is being examined as the source.

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Eek! One of my friends is at Simmons! So is one of my roommates! Well, at least the outbreak there seems to have been contained... but, yes, this is good reason to make with the washing of hands.

I wonder if the Olive Garden worker had sick time, or if she/he felt compelled to come to work sick to avoid losing pay?

By Buffalo Gal (not verified) on 17 Dec 2006 #permalink

I wonder if the Olive Garden worker had sick time, or if she/he felt compelled to come to work sick to avoid losing pay?

Statistically speaking it's unlikely she had sick time. Prior to getting software development jobs (at about the age of 25 or so) - I was *never* in a position to afford a day off, for any reason. That's the reality of low-wage jobs. Any attempt to combat infectious disease, which relies on sick food service workers staying home, is doomed to fail. Everyone enjoys mocking food service workers, and constantly implies they deserve the low pay and zero benefits they get, but as long as it is financially difficult for food service workers to stay away from work while infectious, they'll keep coming to work infected with norovirus, flu, what have you, and spawn myriad outbreaks.

As a culture, America is in love with the notion that each individual's health is her own responsibility. The germ theory of disease combines with severe financial inequities to make that notion a dangerous delusion.

Sorry. Looks as if the link to the university press release on the norovirus may only work if you are clicking on it from the university's home page, which is located at (I suppose it will be only accessible from there for a little while longer.)

Hand washing is the KEY. You can't wash your hands enough. Also, Purell hand sanitizer can be used, but still need to use the good old soap, warm water and friction to minimize exposure. We have been utilizing bacterial wipes such as the Clorox Wipes to wipe off hard services, such as tables, door handles, hand rails, toilets, commodes, etc. Toilets and commodes are done between each patient, other services are done at least once a shift. Certainly if you have vomiting and diarrhea STAY HOME. Norovirus can be lethal to the elderly who are in all ready weakend state, and not to mention it can cause havoc with staffing when your fellow employees fall ill with the infection. So lets make a toast "TO GOOD HANDWASHING!"

By CountyNurse (not verified) on 20 Jan 2009 #permalink