Even a public health expert has proven vulnerable to a stomach virus that’s going around this winter.
“I know it’s happening; I myself have had it,” said Cathi Duncan, Saratoga County’s public health director. “It’s ugly. I was out for two days with it.”
It isn’t clear yet whether this is a worse-than-usual winter for gastrointestinal bugs, since many people ride it out at home without seeing a doctor, and laboratory testing to identify the virus only occurs when there’s an outbreak involving a health care facility, restaurant or cruise ship. But there’s no question it’s out there and that it’s highly contagious. And the symptoms are nasty.
“I talked to the emergency room, and they are seeing quite a bit of vomiting and diarrhea,” said Jo Ann Nelson, a spokeswoman for Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. “It is is more than usual for this time of year.”
Norovirus cases are different from the flu, which state Health Department reports show is much more widespread this year than it was a year ago. There were 5,235 laboratory-confirmed cases the week of Jan. 28, compared with 589 cases in the same week a year ago. The flu is widespread in the Capital Region.
The Health Department said there were 961 hospitalizations during the week of Jan. 28, the latest data available. That’s up from 129 hospitalizations during the year-ago corresponding week. Flu has been described as “widespread” for the past six weeks, whereas there were only regional outbreaks at this point last year. The 2015-16 flu season was an unusually light year, and state statistics show this is the worst flu season in at least five years.
The state Health Department doesn’t track gastrointestinal virus they way it does flu, but officials there acknowledged it’s out there.
“Norovirus is very common during this time of year and quite contagious,” the department said in a prepared statement. “It is easily transmitted from person-to-person or following contact with contaminated surfaces or objects.”
Duncan said she didn’t have evidence of an unusual number of cases in Saratoga County, and Montgomery County Public Health Director Kim Conboy said the number there also didn’t seem unusual.
“Montgomery has not noticed any unusual increase in gastrointestinal illnesses for this time of year,” Conboy said. “Periodically, particularly in the winter season, the norovirus will be circulating.”
Dr. Raymond Smith, an infectious disease specialist at Albany Medical College and Albany Medical Center, said it may be months before experts come together to determine whether it was a “bad season” or a “good season.”
But once the virus is going around, it goes through a family or a workplace easily.
“The thing about these viruses is that they are extraordinarily infectious,” Smith said. “You start shedding the virus before you become ill, and then vomiting can aerosolize it. It takes a tiny, tiny number of viruses to make you ill.”
The best prevention, Smith and other experts said, is careful hand-washing.
“I would emphasize soap and water rather than hand sanitizer wipes,” Smith said. He noted that fecal contamination can be invisible and said undergarments and bedding should be washed with hot water and bleach after someone has been ill. Viral genes survive at least 12 to 24 hours on surfaces, he said, which is how the virus spreads.
“Hand hygiene is the critical thing,” he said.
“You can’t wash your hands enough,” added Duncan, who believes she got the virus from her granddaughter. “That’s the only way to protect yourself — that, and stay away from people who are sick.”
While the virus passes in 24 to 48 hours, Duncan said it’s important for those who become sick to remain well-hydrated.
The federal Centers for Disease Control’s advice also centers on hand-washing, though it also recommends thoroughly rinsing fruits and vegetables and that people should not prepare food for others while they are sick.