The Other Winter Virus

As winter approaches, the virus most of us think about – and want to avoid getting – is the flu. However, there is another winter virus school administrators should be aware of: norovirus.

There is no clear answer as to why norovirus occurs more frequently in the cold winter months. Many say it could be very simply because more people are inside when it’s cold outside, so if someone is infected with norovirus, it is easier for others to contract it.

That is right…to a point.

We do not get norovirus just because a student in the school, for instance, has the disease. Norovirus is spread when someone with the disease vomits. Norovirus pathogens are contained in the vomit, which can and do become airborne. As it does, it can spread as much as 25 feet from the incident. This is why health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention refer to norovirus vomiting as “forceful or projectile vomiting.”

So, if someone gets sick in the hallway of a school, those pathogens can now spread to hallway railings, nearby student locks and lockers, and light switches and other wall controls. If not properly cleaned up, it can spread over the floor area, where it can collect on shoe bottoms, touched when putting on and taking off shoes.

We should also mention that unlike bacterium, virus, or microorganisms found in other diseases, norovirus pathogens tend to hang around for a while. In some studies, they have been found to be alive – able to spread the virus – for weeks after an incident has occurred.

Understanding Norovirus

Our focus here is to discuss cleanup options that help ensure norovirus does not spread to other students, staff, or visitors to a school. But we should also know a bit more about norovirus. While it certainly can “knock us for a loop” health-wise, fortunately for most of us, we just end up in bed for a few days.

Typically, the symptoms of norovirus are nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea. These usually last for two to three days, but those two to three days can be pretty rough. Unfortunately, we do not develop any immunities to norovirus, so we are not immune to any future exposure or infections.

As to the numbers, there are about 20 million cases of norovirus in the U.S. each year. There actually could be more, as some people have the disease, but believe it is just the stomach flu. There are also about 50,000 hospitalizations due to the illness and 300 deaths.

And while we most frequently hear about cases of norovirus on cruise ships, it is more common and spreads rapidly in such public places as:
• Hospitals
• Hotels
• Long-term care facilities
• Daycare centers and schools.

Incident Response

Stopping the spread of norovirus requires having a system in place. It includes tools and equipment, procedures, and making one, crucial assumption: that the vomiting incident was caused by norovirus. Because we do not know at this stage, we have no choice but to make this assumption.
With that said, here’s a look at the proper incident response:
• The entire area within a radius of 25 feet from the incident must be blocked off with warning cones
• Workers involved in the cleanup operation must put on protective gear including gloves, goggles, aprons, etc. (Often these are included in what is called a “spill kit)”
• Remove any chairs, furniture, or items in the incident area
• Do not mop the floor; place a spill pad over the incident. These are typically about 20 inches by 20 inches and are designed to absorb the spill
• Apply a disinfectant over the pad and surrounding floor area; the disinfectant may need up to ten minutes to kill the pathogens
• Use the spill pad to wipe up the area
• Dispose of the spill pad in a trash liner
• Apply disinfectant to the area again and wipe with cleaning cloths or disposable towels
• Put cloths/towels in the trash liner, secure it, and place in an outside dumpster.

But our job is not done.

Now we must clean the surrounding floor and wall areas with a cleaner and disinfectant. As for the floors, it is recommended not to use a mop because the mop can spread any remaining pathogens on the floor. Floor cleaning alternatives, such as disposable towels, are preferred.

As to the surrounding areas, clean and disinfect all touchable areas within 25 feet of the incident. Often this means cleaning the areas first, using an all-purpose cleaner, and then disinfecting, a two-step process.

Training

It sounds like a lot, but once custodial workers are trained how to respond to such incidents, the cleanup typically moves relatively quickly – especially if a spill kit is kept handy. As mentioned earlier, the kit should include all the necessary tools, including protective gear, to perform the cleaning effectively and safely.

Finally, all items should be kept together in one location. When an incident occurs, we want all of our tools – including the spill kit – handy, easily accessible, and ready for action.

About the Author

Duane M. Carey is DayMark Safety Systems Director of Business Development/Emerging Markets. Duane has been involved in the professional cleaning industry for more than three decades and is spearheading DayMark’s entry into the professional cleaning industry. He can be reached through his company website at www.daymarksafety.com.

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