MSNBC.com reports that two hospitals in Allentown and Reading and two nursing homes are the latest places being hit by a stomach bug. A similar virus outbreak kept 1,399 students home from Washington Township High School in New Jersey Friday. Almost 200 people in Lehigh and Berks County have become sick with what local health officials believe is a norovirus, the same virus that sickened hundreds of passengers on cruise ships several years ago. Norovirus is the name now given to a group of viruses previously called Norwalk. Final tests from the state health department are not due until Monday.
Health officials in the Lehigh County said that the virus is spreading like wildfire.
“This is very serious stuff in terms of high contagiousness,” said Dr. Luthor Rhodes, the chief of infectious diseases at Lehigh Valley Hospital.
For the first time, Lehigh Valley Hospital has shut down an entire unit at its Allentown facility. Feb. 17, dozens of patients and employees at its transitional skilled unit came down with symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. The hospital determined the people had a highly contagious gastrointestinal virus. As of Friday, 30 patients and 37 staff members became ill.
“We have clinical cases occurring, even today, so the outbreak is not completed yet,” Rhodes said.
Lehigh Valley Hospital isn’t the only health facility affected. The Reading Hospital and Medical Center also appeared to be affected by the virus.
The Allentown Health Department believes the norovirus has sickened 25 residents and five employees at the Liberty Nursing and Rehab Center in Allentown and made 36 residents at the Cedarbrook Nursing Facility in South Whitehall Township sick.
Hospital officials said that it is possible that the virus might have originated at the Magic Years day-care center in Allentown where many hospital employees take their children. The center said 10 preschoolers and one staff member became sick last week after an outbreak of diarrhea.
Washington Township High School Closes Early Friday
Meanwhile, Washington Township School District officials now suspect the norovirus has hit its student population, forcing early closure on Friday.
The superintendent of schools, Dr. Cheryl Simone, made the decision to release the high school students at 11:30 a.m. after 1,399 of the school’s 3,050 students called in sick. Only 8 percent of the faculty was absent.
NBC 10 reported 672 students stayed home sick Thursday. That is 22 percent of the student body.
Workers paid extra attention to cleaning at the school Thursday night.
Of the sick students, 552 were freshmen and sophomores who attend classes together in one building at the school complex.
Officials believe the virus will soon run its course.
Friday night’s freshman dance, however, has been rescheduled for Friday, March 10. All other school activities, including Friday night’s basketball game, will go on as scheduled.
“Every indication is that this illness is a rapid 24-hour virus that is being spread through contact and is not airborne,” Simone said. “Our custodial staff worked overtime through the night to ensure that all surfaces, desktops, door knobs and bathrooms were diligently disinfected.”
Health experts recommend that with any threat of an intestinal illness, you should make sure that you wash your hands and don’t share food, beverages or utensils with anyone you think might be infected.
Updates on the situation can be found at the school district’s Web site at www.wtps.org.
Similar problems were not reported at the district’s 10 other schools.
The Gloucester County Health Division has collected samples from the school building and sent them to the state Health Department’s lab for processing. Officials don’t believe the virus is airborne. They think it might be passed through contact.
Symptoms, Treatments For Norovirus
Symptoms of norovirus usually include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramping. Sometimes people have a low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and fatigue.
Norovirus disease is usually not serious, although people can feel very sick and may vomit many times a day. People who cannot drink become dehydrated and may need hospitalization.
Norovirus is found in the stool or vomit of infected people. There are several ways that it can be transmitted:
# Eating food or drinks that are contaminated with the virus
# Touching surfaces or objects contaminated with the virus
# Having direct contact with someone who is ill
# Sharing food or utensils with a contaminated person
Being in a day-care center where diapers are changed
People infected are contagious from the moment they begin feeling ill to at least three days after recovery — sometimes for two weeks after recovery. There is no medicine for norovirus, doctors just recommend that someone who is infected should keep hydrated.
To avoid norovirus, wash your hands, avoid people who are sick with the virus and don’t share their food. Also, don’t kiss an infected person on the lips. You should immediately remove and wash clothing or bed linens that may have become contaminated after someone becomes sick.