Norovirus is an easily spread, small virus that affects millions of people annually. It is often classified as the "stomach flu," though it has nothing to do with Influenza. Infected individuals experience severe vomiting, diarrhea and other digestive issues over several days. The dehydration that occurs can be very dangerous to the elderly or sensitive groups. The virus is highly contagious, and very resistant to cleanup - the particles can live on surfaces for days, and are resistant to temperature extremes and even some common disinfectants.
"I have some insights I'd be willing to offer you, but I can sum them up as 'Don't let it happen to you,'" said Rick Evans, manager of the Visalia Country Club, where the event was held.
The country club suffered a norovirus outbreak a month ago, and was forced not only to shut its doors for 2 weeks, but went through approximately $70,000 of cleaning and disposal of linens, food and other infected items. Four-hundred-fifty man-hours were spent disinfecting vents, upholstery and even ceiling tiles. Evans himself fell ill due to the outbreak.
"(The cleanup) was very, very intensive, and every square inch of this facility was cleaned. And when I say 'every square inch' that means all the floors, walls, ceilings, recessed light canisters, speaker grids, everything," said Doug Jordan of ServiceMaster, the company that spearheaded the cleaning effort.
The facility reopened after local health department officials determined no sign of infectious materials in food and water samples. Bleach-based cleaners are now used daily in the facility, as the chemical is one of the most effective substances available to eliminate norovirus.
Nilsa Gonzalez of the Tulare County Environmental Health Department stressed preparedness and vigilance in cleanliness and employee health. Food handlers are the easiest conduit for norovirus in a restaurant situation, with raw or undercooked foods being the most common problem substance, she said.
"About 50 percent of all outbreaks of food-related illnesses are caused by the norovirus, and in many of these cases, sick food handlers are the cause," she said.
Public health officials stress that employees showing signs of symptoms be asked to stay home from work for at least 72 hours to allow the virus to work its way through the body. While this can be a difficult situation for both a restaurant and the employee, it is the only way to ensure the food handler is not at risk of causing an outbreak.
View the full norovirus presentation below.
Doug Jordan of ServiceMaster cleaning services and Rick Evans of the Visalia Country Club take questions at a norovirus informational seminar May 28.
Photo by Alan LaGuardia