It’s one nasty bug

The norovirus makes its annual rounds in Butte County

If this is you, you may have the norovirus.

If this is you, you may have the norovirus.

Photo by Kyle Emery

Last week my roommate was getting over a bout of wretched sickness, during which he emerged from his room only to vomit or walk around the apartment like a zombie. He just looked sickly—draped in a blanket, miserably shuffling around with a blank expression on his face and a mop bucket in hand.

And then it started happening to me. Hours before the first real wave of nausea hit, I had that “uncomfortably full” feeling one experiences after, say, a delicious Thanksgiving dinner. Difference being I had just eaten a bowl of instant rice that wasn’t particularly delicious or filling. I knew then my cookies must not be long for the tossing.

That night I was haunted by a series of nightmarish, fever-induced hallucinations and uncontrollable shaking. My only course of action was to curl into a ball and curse my roommate.

The next morning, however, was a thing of beauty. I felt like a bus had run me over in my sleep, but the fever had passed and I no longer felt like my stomach was trying to make a daring escape via the esophagus. It was the kind of relief only a return to health can bring.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my roommate had infected me with the norovirus, a particularly contagious gastrointestinal virus making the rounds in Butte County. It’s too early in the season to determine whether this winter is an especially bad one for cases of norovirus, but all indications suggest it will be before all is said and done.

“We try to work from a scientific standpoint, so we want to speak with great certainty before we make a major claim,” said Kiyami Bird, program manager at the Butte County Department of Public Health. “At this point, it looks like we’ve got five skilled nursing facilities that are currently reporting likely outbreaks. To put that into context, we have an average of six outbreaks a year.”

It is difficult to gauge how many people in Butte County have been infected with the virus because individual cases are not reported to the health department. Instead, they monitor possible outbreaks in institutions like schools and hospitals.

“Normally, our noro season is three to four months long, and we’ve had five outbreaks in about a month’s time,” Bird said. “We can’t say for sure, but we are hearing from the public that it is circulating out there.”

Norovirus is commonly referred to as a “stomach flu,” although it’s technically not a form of influenza, a respiratory illness that will manifest itself as coughing, sneezing, a sore throat and fever. Norovirus, on the other hand, will produce symptoms like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, body aches and sometimes fever. The good news is a healthy person will normally get over the virus in a day or two, although that is not to say the illness should be taken lightly.

“It can be serious for some people,” Bird said. “The frail, the very young, the elderly or people with underlying chronic illness can be affected severely because it causes dehydration.”

Bird urges those who have contracted the virus to stay at home at least a day after the symptoms have receded, as it is still possible to infect others. Norovirus is transmitted through one-on-one contact, exposure to contaminated food or surfaces and aerosolized vomit or diarrhea.

“It’s very resilient,” said Denise Fleming, chief nursing officer at Chico State Student Health Services. “It can live up to seven days, so it’s important to wash your hands well, disinfect environmental surfaces with a 1:10 bleach solution and use special care when assisting someone who is sick.”

Fleming says Chico State will be prepared for a potential outbreak among returning students.

“We’ve been busily engaged for the return of students should this become an issue, but we hope it has been resolved by then,” she said. “We’re ready should there be a spike in illness.”