Norovirus strikes at least 80 Broward residents

POMPANO BEACH - A flu being blamed on the norovirus has felled at least 80 people in Broward County this week, following a recent outbreak in Palm Beach County.

A Pompano Beach retirement community and two Hollywood homeless shelters are reporting scores of people complaining of stomach and intestinal distress, attacks that can last for up to 48 hours.

At the 64-acre John Knox Village on Southwest Sixth Street in Pompano, about 20 residents and less than a dozen staffers were stricken this week.

"Our doctors think it is norovirus, but it's hard to say," said Mark Rayner, John Knox Village's director of health facilities. About 1,000 people live there independently or with assisted or nursing home care. "One doctor had a couple of his patients give samples."

Rayner said no official quarantine was put into effect after people began feeling ill Monday. But, he added, "Visitors are prohibited. That's what you do. We're using the universal precautions and infection control procedures."

He said the outbreak was "not normal" for the facility.

"Snowbirds typically bring stuff to South Florida, but we're pretty isolated," Rayner said. "I have no idea what started it."

Relatives of the facility's hospice patients are being treated differently.

"They have their own wing and their family members can come in," Rayner said. "We contacted the Health Department Monday."

In Hollywood, managers at the Cosac Homeless Assistance Center on U.S. 1 near Taft Street rolled yellow tape marked "QUARANTINE" across the building's front doors to keep about 45 sick employees and clients inside, and most other people outside.

Sean Cononie, director of the center, said he suspects it is tainted with the extremely contagious virus. Toting a white plastic tray on Thursday afternoon, he tried to collect a stool sample from one of the sick. The Broward County Health Department will test whatever samples Cononie sends in to confirm if it's norovirus.

Staff at the facility made announcements over a loudspeaker several times each hour to remind clients and employees to wash their hands and wipe down countertops, door knobs and other smooth surfaces that can harbor the bug.

At the 140-bed Broward Outreach Center on Dixie Highway, south of Sheridan Street, five clients who reported feeling sick are being kept in a separate room. They started feeling better Thursday, said Maryann Diamond, social services director, but will be isolated until Saturday.

"We wanted to play it safe," Diamond said. "We cleansed all the rooms and did everything in compliance with the Department of Health. So far, we've reported no new cases."

Candy Sims, spokeswoman for the Broward County Health Department, said there are flu cases caused by norovirus being studied but would not discuss local outbreaks.

"I can't confirm or deny where our investigations are located," Sims said. "It's not considered an epidemic, but it is in our community. We have not had any deaths."

Like the path of the non-fatal illness within the body, the outbreak seems to be traveling south.

Palm Beach County had recent incidents, but the problem has died down, said Tim O'Connor, spokesman for the Palm Beach County Health Department.

"We had quite a few — last month — of the norovirus," O'Connor said. "Usually we'll see it in group or congregate living facilities."

O'Connor said weather may be a factor in the outbreak.

"We've obviously had a colder-than-normal winter, so people may have not been going out as much," he said.

State officials announced Tuesday that in January and February, 61 clusters of gastrointestinal illness "attributable to norovirus" were identified in schools, nursing homes and prisons. That's 14 more clusters than were identified during the first two months of 2009.

Outbreaks also are occasionally reported aboard cruise ships.

Sims defined a cluster as an occurrence of a greater than expected number of cases, in a group of people, geographic area or a period of time.

To prevent fever, chills, severe stomach cramping, nausea and diarrhea, experts are advising frequent hand-washing. If sick, stay home and drink a lot of fluids to avoid dehydration over the 24 to 48 hours the flu usually lasts.

At John Knox Village on Thursday, Lillian Kimmel looked forward to attending the Spring Scene, an evening talent show to be performed by residents. She said staff alerted everyone about the outbreak Monday.

"That's when they told us there was a bug going," said Kimmel, 92. "It's really just a small area in the health center and it's contained. I don't find any of it distressing."

She said that she was sorry to hear staffers were ill, too.

"I think they're working very hard to contain it," Kimmel said. "I have nothing but good things to say about John Knox Village. You can rest assured they are being well taken care of, based on how I'm being cared for. The nurses are very dedicated."

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek and Staff Writer Brian Haas contributed to this report.