Senior housing put under quarantine

San Mateo County Health Department officials hope to lift quarantine this week on a local senior housing facility where more than 80 residents contracted the highly contagious norovirus, a hardy gastrointestinal bug.

A local hospital contacted the Health Department on Dec. 5 to report that two residents of Bonnie Brae Terrace were admitted with severe vomiting, fever, diarrhea and stomach cramps — key indicators of norovirus. Disease control and prevention staff visited the 164-person facility the next day, toting industrial-strength hand-sanitizer and handing down recommendations to cancel group activities and close the dining room, according to Health Department spokeswoman Beverly Thames.

Thames said several more people came down with the virus on Thursday, and a county health officer the following day ordered that no visitors were allowed and all residents must stay in their apartments.

“We quickly realized it was becoming a bigger problem,” Thames said.

People contract the virus by touching something that is contaminated, like a doorknob, or by sharing contaminated food or utensils. It usually takes only a very small amount of contamination to cause the illness, which crops up most commonly in schools, cruise ships and other areas with large groups of people. The virus can last one to two days in healthy people.

Unfortunately, riding out the unpleasant symptoms is often the only way to deal with the illness, a particularly tough task among very young people and the elderly, Thames said. Michelle Mussuto, spokeswoman for the California Department of Health Services, said contracting the very common norovirus once does not make a person immune to it in the future.

As an independent living facility, Bonnie Brae has no medical staff on site. Its independent living status also means it does not have to be regularly monitored by a state or federal agency, according to Rick Langford, duty officer with the California Department of Social Services community care licensing division.

County health department nurses have been on site checking on all the residents, handing out Gatorade to keep them hydrated and informing them on how the disease is spread.

Thames said norovirus outbreaks havebecome routine in San Mateo County. In 2003, 79 patients and employees at the Millbrae Serra Convalescent Hospital contracted the virus.

Health officials will lift the quarantine when everyone has been rid of the virus for three days, Thames said.

tramroop@examiner.com

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