Norovirus outbreaks affect Mecklenburg County long-term-care centers

02/27/2014 5:40 PM

02/28/2014 2:15 PM

Outbreaks of norovirus – often referred to as the stomach flu – have brought some nasty symptoms to lots of Mecklenburg County residents this winter, especially at long-term care centers

Health officials say the level of illness is normal for this time of year. Six nursing homes or assisted living centers have taken steps to isolate sick residents for various periods because of viral outbreaks, said Dr. Steve Keener, medical director of the Mecklenburg County Health Department.

One of the latest outbreaks is at The Laurels at Highland Creek, where assisted living residents have been getting meals in their rooms, instead of in the dining room, since late last week.

“We contacted the local health department immediately, and have taken prompt and aggressive measures to address this issue,” said Executive Director Beverly Janco.

Group activities were temporarily canceled, and residents are encouraged to stay in their rooms and restrict visitors to emergencies only, she said. The center is using a professional service for “deep cleaning and sanitizing.”

Keener said the norovirus, which commonly circulates in the winter, is highly infectious. “All it takes is one person to get it, and it spreads like wildfire. It is not a serious illness but when you get it you think you’re going to die,” he said. “Name a GI symptom and this gives it to you – nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramping. It is just awful.”

Symptoms last one to three days, and health officials recommend isolation for sick long-term care residents until 48 hours after symptoms end, Keener said. The illness can become serious in older people because of the risk of dehydration.

Long-term care centers are acting appropriately by implementing isolation measures, he said.

“If it were me, and my dad lives in assisted living, I would want other people to be isolated. (The virus) attacks the nicest places as well as the more Econo Lodge models. It’s not an indication that there’s anything that’s not clean.”

When advising long-term care centers, Keener said the health department follows recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition to isolating ill residents and restricting visitors, he said nursing homes and assisted living centers should make sure everyone – residents, staff and visitors – washes their hands with soap and water for 15 seconds each time. Hand sanitizers are not effective for the norovirus, he said.

Employees should stay home if they’re ill until 48 hours after symptoms have stopped. Admissions and transfers should also be discontinued until the outbreak is over.

Luann Laubscher of Mooresville said she and her friend Hope Caywood have been taking “supplies and treats” to Caywood’s 89-year-old mother during the isolation period at Laurels at Highland Creek.

“We had to take them to the front door and somebody came and got them and took them to her room,” Laubscher said. “I’m a little concerned about her mental health. She’s isolated in her room. But she’s a pretty tough cookie.”

Laubscher said nurse aides and other employees are visiting the residents as often as possible, but Caywood’s mother said she’s heard that “some people are going bonkers.”

“This is one of those times when you’ve just got to follow the rules,” Laubscher said. “I think they’re following protocol and hopefully it will be over with soon.”

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