By Kieran McQuilkin
Officials are working to prevent a large-scale outbreak of Norovirus in Rockbridge County.
The stomach ailment has infected students at alarming rates at some Virginia schools, shutting down Hampden-Sydney College in Farmville for almost a week.
“We see outbreaks of Norovirus every year in communities and schools,” said Dr. Jane Horton, Washington and Lee University’s Director of Student Health and Counseling. “But we’ve never had so many patients in such a short time like they did at Hampden-Sydney.”
Horton was not concerned that present levels of Norovirus in the area would escalate to a level prompting emergency action. But she said Washington and Lee’s Department of Health and Safety was prepared to work with the Lexington-Rockbridge Health Department and Virginia Department of Health (VDH) to make a plan if there is a local outbreak.
Her department hung posters in Washington and Lee bathrooms, called “Stall Street Journals,” that have information about the virus and how to stop it from spreading.
About 300 students at Hampden-Sydney were infected with the stomach virus, prompting university officials to cancel classes between Jan. 29 and Feb. 3 and disinfect several campus buildings.
“The worst part was not being able to eat or drink because it would come right back out,” said Hampden-Sydney student Theo Koulianos. “I was only sick for less than 24 hours, but the first few hours were miserable.“
Lab tests confirmed it was Norovirus on Jan. 31, according to Hampden-Sydney’s website. Longwood University and Sweet Briar College also confirmed several cases of Norovirus on their campuses.
Norovirus is not related to the flu, which has been especially prominent this year in the Rockbridge area.
Horton said Washington and Lee and the surrounding community have several cases of Norovirus every year, but it has not spread as much as in Farmville. She said about a year ago, an outbreak infected 60 students in a two-week period.
“It’s always a concern, and we tend to see more cases during the winter,” said Horton.
She said Washington and Lee has treated students with what appeared to be Norovirus in January and this month, but the cases were not confirmed. Confirming the virus requires sending stool samples to the state health department’s laboratory, a procedure she said is necessary only during an outbreak.
Col. Stewart MacInnis, Virginia Military Institute’s director of communications and marketing, said he is not aware of any Norovirus cases at the school. Officials at Southern Virginia University did not respond to requests for comment.
What is Norovirus?
Norovirus is a contagious stomach virus, often likened to food poisoning and stomach flu, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It said the virus can cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
The CDC says Norovirus causes 20 million illnesses and between 570 and 800 deaths in the US annually.
Norovirus is so contagious because it spreads by contact, and just a small amount of it could make someone sick, according to the CDC. It says 1,000 people could get sick from the virus particles that would fit on the head of a pin.
Infected people are most contagious while they have symptoms of the virus and in the first few days after recovering from sickness.