According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) half of the United States reported cases of norovirus are found in long term care facilities. Why is it that the elderly and weak are more prone to this virus than others? What makes long term care facilities a hot spot for viruses? To better answer these questions, we first need to take a look at how the virus is spread.
What is the Norovirus? Norovirus is a group of viruses that attack the lining of the stomach and intestines. The viruses cause gastroenteritis, giving victim’s acute stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus is spread through the feces and vomit of infected people. It seems surreal to think so many people contract the norovirus given the way it spreads but the truth is we live in conditions that are not as clean as we perceive them to be.
The grim reality is that projectile vomit can spray up to almost ten feet. Last year, a group of UK scientists from the Health and Safety Laboratory created a robot affectionately named “Vomiting Larry” to demonstrate how lingering vomit micro-particles could cause cross contamination of the norovirus. Vomiting Larry surprised scientists when his projectile vomit went far further than they had anticipated at nearly a distance of 10 feet away in all directions. Their experiment filled in the gap of why so many people could become infected with the norovirus from vomit. The area of contamination was much greater than initially perceived.
In long term care facilities, patients are at a point in their lives where they need the assistance of healthcare workers to accompany them to the lavatories. Often times these patients can not make it to the bathroom in time, which means that feces and vomit micro-particles are contaminating much of the common areas even after the accident is thought to have been cleaned up. With so many norovirus micro-particles present, it infects people rapidly and in large numbers. Healthcare workers who assist one sick patient can then walk down the hall and unknowingly contaminate another patient.
Long term care patients also have weakened immune systems making them particularly susceptible to the virus. Where healthy people can rid themselves of the virus within a few days, the sick and elderly may take several weeks to recover. During that downtime, the virus has more time to infect new victims. For these reasons long term healthcare facilities remain high targets for norovirus outbreaks.
The CDC recommends long term care facilities isolate patients with norovirus in separate rooms to prevent the virus from spreading to other patients. They recommend routinely disinfecting surfaces the patient has touched with an Environmental Protection Agency-approved product with a label claim for norovirus. Health care workers also need to regularly wash hands and clothes to make sure they do not carry the germs on them. Disinfecting and washing are the two main preventative measures used to keep the norovirus away.
Platt, John. “Larry the vomiting robot helps researchers study norovirus.” Mother Nature Network, January 04, 2013. http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/stories/larry-the-vomiting-robot-helps-researchers-study-norovirus (accessed January 23, 2014).
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Surveillance for Norovirus Outbreaks.” Last modified October 31, 2013. Accessed January 23, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/features/dsnorovirus/.