“In Grand County, we haven’t seen an outbreak in a number of years and this one is a little worse than normal,” said Bradon Bradford, environmental health director for the Southeastern Utah District Health Department.
Because norovirus is a viral infection spread through human contact, the health district and local medical practitioners are urging the community to be especially vigilant about proper hand washing and hygiene in order to prevent the virus from spreading.
Approximately 20 people have come into the Moab Regional Hospital emergency room in the past 20 days complaining of severe gastrointestinal symptoms including stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea — symptoms common to norovirus —according to Jennifer Sadoff, the hospital’s director of community relations. One case was officially confirmed as norovirus, but hospital ER physicians “observed an increase in the number of people coming in with these symptoms,” Sadoff said.
Only one person was hospitalized, and Sadoff said it is unclear whether that patient — who has since been released — was admitted to the hospital because of the virus or due to other reasons.
“People don’t need to be alarmed. [Norovirus] is very common,” Sadoff said. “But everyone should always be very careful about personal hygiene such as hand washing.”
This year, she said, the hospital is seeing more cases than usual that appear to be the virus.
“It could be that the strain is stronger or just as a tourist community we are seeing different strains coming through,” Sadoff said.
Roy Barraclough, administrator of the Canyonlands Care Center, said that although “there are no confirmed cases at the care center, we have had residents with symptoms. We treat them as any other illness of that nature, taking the proper infection control precautions.”
Health department officials have theorized that the June norovirus outbreak may have started with a group on a river trip, where one person was sick and quickly spread the flu to others.
“Moab is set up to perpetuate the problem because of the amount of people they have visiting each week,” Bradford said.
Although the norovirus may have originated on a river trip, Bradford stressed that the waterways are not the source of the outbreak.
“We’re not seeing it in the rivers,” he said. “It mostly lives in the guts of a human and spreads through human contact.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the norovirus is the most common cause of food-borne illnesses and acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Because the primary symptoms are vomiting and diarrhea the virus can cause dangerous levels of dehydration. And because the norovirus will thrive on hands and surfaces such as countertops, it can spread rapidly. To stop the spread of an infection, health officials say it is especially important to decontaminate all surfaces where someone has been sick. As for self-protection, it all comes down to hand washing.
“It sounds simple,” Bradford said, “but hand washing really is the number one thing for prevention.”
Joe Kingsley, owner of the Moab-based company GloGerm, which specializes in training medical professionals in proper hand washing techniques, agrees.
“The norovirus has perfected the ability to transmit itself through people’s hands,” Kingsley said. “It has to be taken seriously. The best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands before you eat and avoid touching your eyes and mouth.”
Although the virus is more commonly known as the “cruise ship virus” because of instances in which hundreds of passengers on a cruise ship have become sick within hours, norovirus is extremely common on land as well. According to the CDC, between 19 million and 21 million people become sick with the virus each year, and norovirus “contributes to 56,000 [to] 71,000 hospitalizations and 570 [to] 800 deaths” annually.
Although cases of norovirus in the Moab area may be worse than in other years, “so far the community partners have been very responsive,” Bradford said.
“[The Health Department] has been in contact with food establishments to take additional measures to be cautious with food and hygiene,” he said.
He said food service employees who may be sick should be sent home so the virus does not spread through food handling. As for river runners and outfitters, the SEUHD recommends more strict hand-washing practices, stressing that “all employees and clients wash their hands after using the restroom and before eating.” The agency also notes that any employee or client who has been sick within the past three days should not accompany a group on a trip.
Sadoff also stressed the importance of stopping the “contagious cycle.” A person who contracts the virus remains contagious for three days after they stop feeling symptoms and can therefore spread the virus even if they are feeling better. And after a person becomes infected, they have immunity for only two weeks, so can potentially become ill with repeated incidents.
“So if you have been sick, be thoughtful about who you interact with,” Sadoff said, adding that the elderly, children and infants are always the most vulnerable to the more dangerous aspects of any virus.
Times-Independent reporter Lisa J. Church contributed to this story.