Norovirus Guts H-SC; Symptoms Surface At Longwood And In Community; Washing Hands With Soap And Water Is Best Defense

Published 11:10 am Tuesday, February 3, 2015

HAMPDEN-SYDNEY — The State Health Department has confirmed that the gastrointestinal illness that swept through Hampden-Sydney College was the highly contagious Norovirus.

Lab evidence cannot yet confirm the virus at Longwood University, though Norovirus-like symptoms have surfaced on campus during the past five days and in the community.

Beyond campus confines, health officials are optimistic that, while there will be pockets of Norovirus in the wider community, it will not sweep through the Farmville area as it did at H-SC.

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The virus is resistant to hand sanitizer so washing with soap and water for 20 seconds is the best defense, health officials say.

Several hundred H-SC students were affected and the campus shut down last Thursday. H-SC spokesman, Tommy Shomo, told The Herald that afternoon “we’ve had quite a siege out here. We’re guessing we’ve got about 300 kids sick.”

No new cases were reported from H-SC over the weekend, however, according to Piedmont Health District Health Director, Dr. Alexander P. Samuel, perhaps aided by the fact that most of the college’s 1,050 students went home after the cancellation of classes.

The College extended the suspension of classes until this Wednesday to undertake “environmental cleaning of all buildings” and perform additional steps “to assure a healthy environment,” H-SC’s website states.

Dr. Samuel told The Herald on Monday afternoon that the college was “undertaking a very aggressive environmental cleaning campaign and prevention messaging campaign.”

No classes, no athletic events or practices, and no extracurricular or fraternity social events will resume until February 4, though administrative departments were scheduled to return to normal hours on Tuesday.

Dr. Samuel said there are no indications that Norovirus, which he called “an incredibly common” illness that affects 20 million Americans every year, is spreading widely in the community.

“My sense is that it is not,” Dr. Samuel said. “But that’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it but it’s typically unlikely. It really doesn’t turn into, unlike the influenza, for example, which moves through a whole town, Norovirus, typically, is little pockets where people live in close proximity.”

Schools, universities and jails, for example.

Norovirus is not among the reportable diseases in Virginia because it is so ubiquitous. “Most people who get it have no idea they had it,” Dr. Samuel said. “We follow it when there are outbreaks.”

Regarding the potential spread into the community, the district’s health director told the newspaper on Friday, “There is always the possibility of individual person-to-person contact, and that will more than likely happen, but those usually don’t turn into larger issues.”

He reiterated that belief on Monday, saying, “I still do feel that way. It’s one of those types of things that is of greatest concern in settings where people live together. So the greatest risk is in dormitories, correctional facilities, cruise ships, where folks are together in confined spaces for a reasonable length of time…And eating communal meals.”

On Monday, Longwood University’s website stated “so far we have seen only a handful of cases on campus.”

Dr. Samuel said health officials are hearing about gastrointestinal cases at Longwood but they cannot be confirmed as Norovirus with laboratory evidence yet, though test results should be forthcoming.

“I can’t say we have laboratory-confirmed Norovirus (at LU) although there’s the potential for that,” Dr. Samuel said, describing those cases as “suspicious of Norovirus. The likelihood is there, just given the whole context of what’s going on.”

The two basic ways of catching Norovirus is through person-to-person contact and consuming food that’s been infected by a food service provider who has Norovirus.

The health department is notifying all large food service facilities, such as Longwood University and area schools so that precautions can be taken against Norovirus spreading through an infected food service worker.

“We are working hard with places that have large food service facilities,” Dr. Samuel said.

Health Tips

To minimize the risk of catching Norovirus it is recommended washing your hands with soap and water.

“Norovirus is resistant to hand sanitizers,” Dr. Samuel said. “Soap and water, thoroughly wash for 20 seconds…several times over the course of the day.” Not just after using the bathroom and before meals.

Anyone with Norovirus symptoms should remain away from others for a minimum of 24 hours after their last episode of vomiting and/or diarrhea.

Symptomatic food handlers, Dr. Samual advises, should stay home for a minimum of 48 hours after vomiting or diarrhea.