CHICO, California — After evacuating the catastrophic Camp fire in Northern California, at least 145 people in four shelters have been sickened with norovirus, a gastrointestinal illness that causes intense diarrhea and vomiting, officials said.
At least 25 people who were sickened with the virus have received treatment at hospitals. The outbreak has also included staff members at the shelters.
Norovirus is a common cause of outbreaks on cruise ships, in daycares, or anywhere people are in close quarters, most often between November and April, although they can happen at any time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms of norovirus are nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting; they come on quickly and generally resolve within 3 days.
The Butte County Public Health Department said it’s working with the Red Cross and other groups to contain the outbreak at the four different shelters. Public health experts are focusing on providing dedicated hand-washing stations and bathrooms for people who are sick; providing cleaning supplies that are effective against norovirus, which is notoriously hard to kill; and providing additional medical staff and monitoring of residents for the symptoms of illness, among other measures.
Volunteers who have been trying to shrink a once densely populated tent city in a Walmart parking lot and adjacent field in Chico say that after many evacuees fled for their lives, they’re now facing a second health threat.
Last February, thousands of people were forced to evacuate the area after the Oroville Dam, the tallest in the US, nearly failed after heavy rains. About 30 evacuees contracted norovirus at a shelter.
“Then, the flu broke out,” said Pat Carlson, who has been serving hot coffee at the Walmart parking lot for the past few days. “It was also winter, so people were really worried. They feel it’s the same kind of situation.”
Eating lunch Thursday, Jen Fitzgerald, who lost everything she owns to the fire in Paradise, said she would rather sleep outside in a donated tent, or in her car, with her 7-year-old daughter than risk exposure to the highly contagious virus in a shelter.
Another woman, Shawna, has been sleeping in her red SUV with her mom, 3-year-old daughter, Faith, and newborn baby, Sophia, rather than go to one of the designated shelters.
“She barely has an immune system,” the 21-year-old said, tilting her elbow up to show her bundled infant. “I’m afraid of what would happen.”
Standing in line waiting for a hot meal, Janae Frutos said her good friend, Sina Sonoquie, got violently ill while volunteering at the East Avenue Church in Chico, one of the affected shelters.
“She was puking straight for like six hours,” Frutos shuddered. “Just the thought of that is too overwhelming right now.”
How can you prevent norovirus?
There’s no treatment for norovirus, which usually resolves on its own within three days, said Dr. Roshini Raj, an associate professor of medicine at New York University Langone Health. The biggest risk is usually dehydration, she said.
“It can cause severe dehydration, especially in infants, the elderly, or in chronically ill people,” she said. “Those are the people who should be monitored in a hospital or checked out.”
While severe dehydration can be serious and even potentially life-threatening, norovirus usually isn’t dangerous for people who are generally in good health. “So as long as you are able to keep some fluids in and you’re not feeling extremely weak or fatigued or have headaches or any other signs of dehydration, probably you are fine,” she said.
However, even when symptoms stop, people can still spread the virus to other people. “You can be infectious for a few days, sometimes for even a few weeks,” she said.
“We are talking about people in a shelter, but anyone can get this, so what people should know is that if you get it, the recommendation is to stay home for a full 48 hours after you stop having symptoms, to prevent the spread to other people,” she said. “They should be staying home an extra two days.”
The virus is highly contagious and is spread though contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces.
“So you are drinking or eating, or you are touching it and then your contaminated hand is usually touching your mouth, and you’re getting it through your GI tract,” she said.
The best way to prevent norovirus is by washing your hands, she said. “Hand-washing is really the most important thing, especially for people who are preparing food,” she said.
And it’s important to clean surfaces, too. “It’s a very hardy virus that can live on hard surfaces, and you can’t get it off with just soap and water; often bleach is required to kill it,” she said.