Tis the season for potlucks and parties. However, dipping into that communal dish of chips or candies could put you at risk of Norovirus, a group of viruses that cause acute gastroenteritis, also known as stomach flu. This is not influenza or the flu, which is caused by the influenza virus. Every winter in BC there are outbreaks in schools, nursing homes and hospitals. Last year across Fraser Health acute sites there were 32 declared Gastrointestinal Illness outbreaks, causing illness in both patients and employees. Across BC we have seen a number of gastrointestinal outbreaks in other health authorities being declared in the past couple of weeks.

Symptoms of Norovirus include vomiting, chills, fever and diarrhea within a day or two of being exposed. The virus can be spread on surfaces such as countertops, sinks and taps and can survive a long time on such surfaces if not properly cleaned. When someone with Norovirus vomits, people nearby may be infected by swallowing tiny droplets from the air.

 The key to preventing the virus or reducing its spread is good hand washing, especially after using the toilet, changing diapers or before eating or preparing food. Proper hand washing requires warm, running water, soap and cleansing of the hands for at least 30 seconds. At this time of year, there is much sharing of food so be mindful of how this food is being dished out and avoid any foods where others may have “dipped” in. Try to choose items that are individually wrapped when possible. It’s also a good idea to discourage sharing of food in the workplace, especially those boxes of chocolates that appear at this time of year.

 Several years ago, the WorksafeBC  Act was changed to allow employees who develop Norovirus symptoms while working on an outbreak unit to submit a claim. When an outbreak is declared, a Workplace Health Call Centre Occupational Health Nurse will contact the manager of the affected unit to provide direction for employees who are symptomatic. Employees are directed to remain off work for 48 hours after their symptoms stop, as the virus can be still shed for many days after the person starts to feel better. Workplace Health is also notified if there are increased calls from EARL from departments where employees have identified an increase in Gastrointestinal symptoms. Workplace Health will then notify the local Infection Control Practitioner to see if steps are required to prevent further spread to patients.

 I have enclosed the BCCDC Health Link File on Norovirus with information on what you can do to prevent the spread of this disease at home if it should hit you or your family .Remember, if you do experience symptoms, please stay home for 48 hours after the symptoms resolve.

Cathryn Smith, Program Leader, Provincial Workplace Health Call Centre