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Norovirus Closes VA Pittsburgh Behavioral Health Units to New Patients

Administrators at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System Thursday temporarily closed the behavioral health units to new patients to prevent the spread of Norovirus. 

The virus, commonly known as stomach flu, was first believed to have been detected last Friday.

“Immediately when we recognized the symptoms we started to take measures to prevent transmission from those patients,” says Dr. Brooke Decker, director of infection prevention at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.  She says that as of Thursday there are 14 patients with the virus, all of whom are on one floor of the three-floor behavioral health unit.  Decker says there are 50 total patients in the unit and about 20 on the affected floor. Norovirus can cause brief, intense periods of nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

“We made the decision with an abundance of caution to stop accepting new behavioral health patients,” Decker says, “and the reason for that is one, to prevent additional cases in people who would come to those units, but also to lower the number of patients on those wards so we can give extra attention to the patients who are there.”

According to Decker, good hand hygiene by staff and patients using soap and water is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading.  “We’re also using bleach cleaning as a non-enveloped virus, Norovirus, is definitively killed by bleach.  So we’ve been using a lot more bleach on those wards as well.”

Decker says they are also isolating patients who have contracted the virus.  “It’s definitely challenging especially in a patient population that part of their therapy is social interaction.  So it is not the way we like to do things, but it is necessary to prevent further transmission of this extremely contagious virus.”

Decker says VA Pittsburgh is not taking extra precautions with this virus in the aftermath of the national scrutiny over the 2011-12 Legionnaires Disease outbreak that killed six patients.

“No, I think we’re responding according to CDC guidelines as any other hospital would.”

According to Decker the incubation period—from the time of exposure to the appearance of symptoms—can be up to 72 hours and the illness typically last 24-48 hours, but “people are contagious for 48 hours after symptoms stop,” Decker says.  “So you should stay away from work for at least 48 hours once your symptoms are gone.”