Health officials brace for flu virus

yamaro@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 30, 2013 

No outbreaks of norovirus have been reported in Merced County this year — but public health officials say they're monitoring the disease closely.

Richard Rios with the Merced County Department of Public Health said he's hopeful there won't be any outbreaks. "But (health) facilities in Merced are not immune to have norovirus being transmitted," he said.

A new strain of the virus was the leading cause of norovirus outbreaks in the country from September to December 2012, according to a study recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Norovirus is the No. 1 cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States, which leads to diarrhea and vomiting, according to the CDC. Each year, more than 21 million people in the United States get infected and develop acute gastroenteritis. Around 800 people die annually, the CDC reports.

In Merced County, individual cases of norovirus — confirmed or not — are not mandated to be reported to local and state public health officials, Rios said. However, public health officials do work with local providers and long-term health facilities to monitor outbreaks of stomach flu.

Norovirus is usually the leading cause of stomach flu outbreaks, Rios added. "We do receive reports and we do follow-ups with facilities when there is a suspected outbreak — that's when there's two or more cases," he said.

As far as lab-confirmed outbreaks, Merced County has averaged two norovirus outbreaks per year in the last five years, Rios said. Each outbreak has had about 25 cases.

The norovirus is highly contagious, Rios said. It spreads by direct contact with an infected person or contaminated food.

For example, when people don't wash their hands correctly and they touch food, the virus can be passed on to another person. A person also can become infected after direct contact with vomit from an infected person. That is why it's recommended that people use gloves when cleaning up, Rios said.

But when an infected person vomits, a person nearby also can contract the disease through airborne particles carrying the virus, he said. "That's why it is hard to control," he added.

It is recommended that infected individuals wash their hands frequently with soap and warm water, Rios said, and should follow hygienic practices.

They're also urged to wait at least 24 hours after experiencing symptoms before being around other people. "That will ensure that a person is no longer infectious," Rios said.

The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Sometimes a fever can be present, he said. "Either all of them or some combination of them is an indication that somebody could be infected with norovirus," Rios said.

Anybody experiencing those symptoms is encouraged to contact their health provider. Those with compromised immune systems, along with the very young and the elderly, are most at risk, Rios said.

Officials at Mercy Medical Center Merced said they have yet to see a confirmed case of norovirus.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209)385-2482 or

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