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Possible Norovirus Strikes Alexandria

Retirement communities hit hard by virus.

An outbreak of the mysterious norovirus that has been plaguing cruise lines for the past several years is now suspected of invading three Alexandria continuing care retirement communities.

Beginning late last week cases of the gastrointestinal illness began appearing at The Fountains at Washington House, 5100 Filmore Avenue; The Hermitage of Northern Virginia, 5000 Fairbanks Avenue; and Goodwin House, 4800 Filmore Avenue. As of Monday, approximately 76 suspected cases had been identified throughout the three facilities by the Alexandria Health Department. Of those 76 contracted cases, 68 have already recovered, as of press time Wednesday, according to health officials.

"These things typically happen in the winter. It's not limited to Alexandria. Other facilities throughout the region have reported suspected cases," said Robert Custard, director, Environmental Health, Alexandria Health Department. "It's very much like a stomach flu. But it is not influenza."

As of Monday afternoon only two persons had been hospitalized. They were both from The Fountains. Due to government regulations, no details about their conditions could be released, but authorities speculated if was "probably due more to dehydration."

Characterized by nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, norovirus is highly infectious and easily spread from person to person, according to Custard. "Elderly or those in any weakened condition are more vulnerable," he said.

"We are doing everything we can to break the cycle. It is particularly contagious in any restricted environment," Custard explained.

William Adams, executive director, The Fountains, which reported approximately 40 cases of those afflicted with the symptoms, noted, "We started noticing cases near the end of last week. The cases involved both residents and staff. Now it looks like its on a downward trend."

FOUR RESIDENTS and two staff were hit by the disease at The Hermitage. "All we know right now is that it is some sort of virus but we're not sure it's the norovirus. That can't be confirmed until the lab tests are complete in Richmond," said Timothy Farabaugh, executive director of The Hermitage.

Residents have been confined to their rooms or apartments to lessen the possibility of further spreading, according to Farabaugh. "Once the warning flags went up we reacted very quickly and began to take extra precautions," he said.

"Last week we asked all visitors to wash their hands. We are using only paper products in the dining area. And the building was subsequently closed to visitors as of last Sunday," Farabaugh added.

"Many times staff work in different facilities and can be carriers. We became aware of cases in other facilities and immediately began to take extra, full blown precautions," he said. "We've been very fortunate this year with a low incidence of viruses."

At Goodwin House, Gary Selmeczi, executive director, said, "We don't have any confirmed cases of the virus because we haven't heard back from the laboratory. But we have a little less than two dozen people with some of the norovirus symptoms."

Goodwin House also began monitoring the situation late last week after being contacted by the City Health Department, Selmeczi pointed out. "Some of our cases have displayed the symptoms only once," he said. Both staff and residents are among those affected at Goodwin House.

THE HEALTH DEPARTMENT is tracking the disease "by interviewing patients and staff about their symptoms and by obtaining samples for laboratory testing." Results from such test were not expected until mid week.

Symptoms of norovirus usually last between two and three days, without serious or long-term health effects, according to the City Department of Health. "Elderly or immuncompromised persons in poor health are most at risk of serious complications from the illness," the department stressed.

The illness usually becomes active one or two days after exposure but can appear as early as 10 hours after contact, according to authorities. Each of the impacted facilities is working with the department to implement measures to contain the disease. These include:

* Strict hand washing precautions,

* Minimizing contact between ill and well residents and staff,

* Excluding any employees with symptoms from direct patient care or preparing or serving food,

* Using disposable tableware,

* Disinfecting all possibly contaminated surfaces, and

* Limiting visitors until the outbreak is contained.