Four residents at the state home for veterans in Minneapolis have died in a suspected outbreak of norovirus at the facility.
The outbreak was first reported on March 7. Since then, 35 residents of the veterans' home and about three dozen employees have reported symptoms, according to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs.
Officials are restricting visits to the facility and temporarily have stopped accepting new patients in an attempt to stop the outbreak. Employees are wearing surgical masks and gloves.
"We've contacted family members and asked them to restrict their visits. We haven't out and out told them they can't come, but we've asked them to restrain their visits, not bring any food from the outside, and to help us contain this outbreak," said Deputy Commissioner of Veterans Health Care Michael Gallucci.
Officials believe the outbreak primarily was in building 19 of the state home, where residents coping with memory loss live.
"The residents that passed were all residents that were in the advanced special care unit for dementia and Alzheimer's and had very complicated medical matters other than just having caught this virus," Gallucci said.
The agency has sent samples to the Minnesota Department of Health to test whether norovirus is actually responsible for the outbreak. Gallucci said the restrictions instituted at the facility to stop the spread of the illness will stay in place until officials are sure the outbreak has ended.
Norovirus, a gastrointestinal disease, spreads very easily through human contact or contaminated food. It can cause vomiting and diarrhea. Symptoms typically last a day or two for otherwise healthy people, although those with chronic conditions that weaken their immune systems can die through dehydration or other symptoms of the illness.
The Minnesota Department of Health has investigated 43 confirmed or suspected outbreaks of norovirus in Minnesota since January.
The state's food-borne disease supervisor Kirk Smith said norovirus outbreaks are very common in facilities like nursing homes.
"There are a lot of people there interacting with a lot of other people in close confines, that always increases infectious disease transmission," Smith said. Outbreaks are "noticed more because norovirus causes more severe disease in people with weakened immune systems like you find in nursing homes."
Smith said norovirus can be passed from stool for days or weeks after symptoms disappear.
"If people are sick or recently ill, they should not be visiting nursing homes or other places that have vulnerable populations," Smith said.
Public health officials say people can stop the spread of norovirus by washing their hands after using the bathroom and before eating or preparing food.