By: James Peacock
Schools in the Santa Monica School District have had to take drastic action in an attempt to slow the spread of a Norovirus outbreak in the district. Almost 200 students have been sickened by Norovirus in the last few weeks. Teachers, faculty, and parents have also been infected as the outbreak spread. While there are increasing amounts of people reporting illness, the outbreak does not appear to have spread into the community, but rather it has been limited to the schools. The first warnings of a foodborne illness outbreak came as students were returning from a field trip. Many students from John Adams Middle School, a school in the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District, had taken a trip to Yosemite National Park. During this five-day trip, it is likely that at least one of the students came into contact with Norovirus. Several of the students returned from the trip with gastrointestinal issues, and it was not before long that a full-fledged Norovirus outbreak had started. Since then, the school district has been forced to take measures to limit the spread of infection, citing a desire to end the outbreak before it goes “on for months and months.”
On February 13, 2017, the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District, in accordance with recommendations given to them by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, cancelled all after school activities until the outbreak subsides. Included in this cancellation was music, athletics, dances, and any other social activity. This move would end up helping prevent a few infections, but it could not stop the spread of Norovirus. Because of this, on March 6, 2017, the Santa Monica-Malibu United School District issued another announcement. This time, they were cancelling the Open House that was supposed to take place at Santa Monica High School on March 9, 2017. Parents were told, at a meeting hosted by the school district, to keep any potentially ill children at home. The school district has recommended that students who are showing the symptoms of Norovirus poisoning should stay home for 48 hours to ensure that they are not contagious. They also stressed the importance of proper handwashing and preventing cross contamination. The school district, though, remains confident that the outbreak will end soon, allowing students to return to their normal schedules. In an email to parents, the school district maintained that the several cancellations were “not a reflection of worsening conditions,” and have also stated that “[they] see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Although Norovirus is very contagious, there are methods and practices that can reduce the chance of a Norovirus infection taking place. The greatest risk of Norovirus poisoning is when someone is still symptomatic, or are in the first few days after recovering from the illness. Norovirus itself is almost exclusively transmitted through fecal matter, but this exposure can happen in several ways. Eating food or drinking something prepared by someone ill with Norovirus poisoning, being in contact with ill persons, and touching contaminated surfaces may all lead to a Norovirus infection. Norovirus being so easily spread makes hygiene one of the most important methods of preventing disease. Practicing proper hand washing will greatly reduce the risk of spreading the infection. For tips on how to practice proper hand washing, click here. Properly cooking foods is another way to reduce the chance of infection. Most meats must be cooked to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to eliminate potential contaminates. Fish will often need to be cooked to a temperature of 145 degrees to achieve the same effect. A full list of proper cooking temperatures can be found here.
Norovirus infections represent the most common source of foodborne illnesses in the United States. The Center for Disease Control estimates that there are between 19 and 21 million cases every year. Almost 2 million people are forced to contact a medical professional because of their Norovirus infection. Between 56,000 and 71,000 people are hospitalized every year because of Norovirus, and there are around 1,000 deaths annually. While Norovirus infections are common year round, more Norovirus infections are recorded in the winter months. The vast majority of Norovirus cases are spread from person to person, because the virus is among the most contagious of the foodborne pathogens. Because of this, Norovirus outbreaks tend to infect many people in a short period of time, and also tend to burn themselves out. Outbreaks of Norovirus are commonly associated with leafy greens, fresh fruits, and shellfish. Foods can become contaminated with Norovirus at any point during the manufacturing, shipping, and cooking processes. Norovirus outbreaks are especially dangerous in areas where contact with other people are common. Healthcare facilities, schools, and daycares are some of the most common places that a Norovirus outbreak may take place. Cruise ships are also a common outbreak location. Like any foodborne pathogen, Norovirus outbreaks are also common at restaurants and catered events.
A case of Norovirus poisoning can cause inflammation in the stomach, as well as the intestines. Symptoms of Norovirus poisoning will begin to rise between 12 and 48 hours after the first exposure to the pathogen. Commonly, a Norovirus infection will produce symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, and abdominal cramping. Fever, headaches, and body aches are less common symptoms but still possible. Most cases of Norovirus poisoning will clear up on its own within 3 days, but in some cases the illness may worsen. Norovirus can also cause dehydration, which will present with symptoms including decrease in urination, dry mouth, dizziness upon standing, and dry throat. Young children, the elderly, and those with suppressed immune systems are at an increased risk of contracting a serious case of Norovirus poisoning and becoming dehydrated. While there is no specific method of treating a Norovirus infection, many doctors will recommend rest and hydration to treat the illness. Coffee, alcohol, and other dehydrating liquids should be avoided, as well as overly salty foods. If you or a loved one begin to show the symptoms of Norovirus poisoning, it is a good idea to contact a medical professional.