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Norovirus hits local shelters in high numbers

Posted at 11:19 PM, Dec 21, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-22 00:19:03-05

The norovirus, also referred to as the 'winter vomiting disease' for its seasonal uptick in colder months, is in the upswing in Omaha shelters. 

The Douglas County Health Department said the virus is going around with dozens of cases in the area. 

Mike Saklar, Executive Director at the Siena/Francis house says the shelter got hit hard the last two weeks with both guests and employees out sick for days. Saklar says they were forced to call the State Health Department for advice on how to treat the outbreak. 

"It was overwhelming. People were getting sick rapidly and so at one time, we even had 80 people sick," says Saklar. 

Anna O'keef from the State Health Department says the highly contagious bug, which has no cure, typically lasts 1-3 days and consists of severe vomiting and diarrhea. She says the only way to prevent it from spreading is to clean up contaminated spaces with bleach. 

"It's so easy to catch. It's as simple as touching something that has Norovirus on it and then eating it and ingesting it. So it could be door knobs, it could be someone that was sick and prepared some foods and then feeds it to others," says O'keef. "If someone has violent vomiting and they can't make it to the bathroom, whoever cleans the mess is at very high risk for spreading it - it's that easy. You need to be very careful with how you clean and use lots of bleach."

Saklir says that over 60% of guests that show up over the course of a month or so are first-time homeless. Saklir says all that turnover makes people more susceptible to getting the virus. 

"This facility is so overcrowded and so we’ve been running in the 370s for the men and we have 220 beds and so we’re averaging about 150 on the floor so you have to weigh the weather against overcrowded conditions."

Abby Burgess, the Housing Director at the Stephen Center in South Omaha says the Center has had about 10 residents with the virus, including men and women with cases confirmed by a hospital. Burgess says none of the adults or children with the virus needed in-patient hospitalization for it. 

The Open Door Mission says they didn't have any confirmed cases of the bug, but did have a few people with a stomach bug days ago that lasted 1-2 days. 

All of the shelters are performing extra cleanings to prevent a viral spread of the virus, especially in food preparation and in public areas and bathrooms. They've also put more hand sanitizers throughout the shelter and are encouraging everyone to stay germ-free.