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Norwalk virus outbreak suspected at care centers

An outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea in Medford makes public health officials think the Norwalk virus has surfaced again in Southern Oregon.

Waterford at Three Fountains and Barnett Woods Retirement Living contacted public health officials after residents fell ill, said Jackson Baures, an environmental health specialist for Jackson County.

Baures said stool samples have been sent to state laboratories to determine the origin of the illness, but the symptoms are consistent with the Norwalk virus. He said five to 10 people have been reported ill at Waterford, a nursing home with about 130 beds, and two people who live at Barnett Woods were ill enough to require hospitalization.

Barnett Woods is an over-55 community with 74 individual apartments.

Keri Wambolt, Barnett Woods' executive director, said it's hard to tell how many people fell ill because residents live in individual apartments and come and go at will. She said no new cases have surfaced at Barnett Woods since Tuesday.

— Helen Smith, executive director at Waterford, said one wing of the nursing home had been closed to protect other residents and no new patients would be admitted until there were no new cases for three days.

The Norwalk virus is named for the town in Ohio where it was first isolated in 1972. Small amounts of the virus are frequently present in the general environment, and it spreads easily, especially in places where people live in close quarters, such as nursing homes.

Controlling it is difficult, Baures said, because by the time you realize your facility has it, you could have had lots of people exposed.

People must ingest the virus to contract it, but as few as 10 to 20 particles of virus can cause infection. Research suggests the virus can survive on undisinfected surfaces for as long as a week. Baures said someone could conceivably pick up enough virus to become ill by touching an infected doorknob and then eating with that hand.

One reason it's so difficult to control is because it's so difficult to control human behaviors, he said.

The virus can be killed with a strong bleach solution (1 cup of bleach to 10 cups of water). When an outbreak occurs, Jackson County recommends care givers wear gloves, masks and gowns to protect them from exposure.

That's what staff has been doing at Waterford, Smith said. Our primary concern is for the safety of our residents.

People sometimes call Norwalk the 24-hour stomach flu, because symptoms usually pass quickly. In severe cases, it can be life-threatening for people who are frail or have other medical problems.

Baures noted that the virus has surfaced in Jackson County several times during the past few years. In February 2004 several hundred people were sick when the virus spread through several nursing care centers in Medford and Ashland. It surfaced twice in 2003 ' in Medford in January and in Eagle Point in November .

Baures said many cases go unreported, especially those that occur in homes. Health care facilities are required to report any outbreak of disease, but that can be difficult to define in a population where everyone has a number of health problems.

It's good of them to let us know (when they have an outbreak), Baures said, even though it sometimes brings them bad publicity.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492, or e-mail