Cold weather is upon us which means it is the season for increased chance of getting sick. Norovirus (formerly called “Norwalk Virus”) is the most common cause of epidemic gastroenteritis. There are 20 million cases of Norovirus each year in the United States. Over 50,000 people are hospitalized each year and 500 deaths occur annually. The most vulnerable populations are young children and older adults. It most commonly occurs during the months of November through April and can cost the U.S. economy two billion dollars per year!

Norovirus is difficult to kill and spreads rapidly in large population. Vulnerable settings are long term care facilities, hospitals, schools, cruise ships, restaurants and child care. The virus spreads from person to person when hands are not washed properly. It typically takes someone 12-48 hours to get sick. When someone contracts Norovirus, they are contagious for two weeks after recovery.

Factors contributing to outbreaks of Norovirus include:

  1. Food handling by infected person.
  2. Bare hand contact
  3. Inadequate cleaning
  4. Slow cooking
  5. Inadequate cold holding

The key areas a food service department must pay attention to are: improper holding time and temperature, poor personal hygiene and contaminated equipment/protection from contamination. Norovirus survives longer under cold and wet conditions and can survive freezing and refrigerator temperatures.

The key to prevention is to send employees home if they are sick. However, in a recent study it was disclosed that 20% of workers said they worked a shift in the last year with vomiting and diarrhea. Keep in mind that the virus can be spread airborne and infect even more people if someone is not sent home right away.

To prevent the spread of Norovirus, be vigilant with handwashing and avoid unsanitary habits. It is important to note that the FDA does not recognize hand sanitizers as an effective method to kill Norovirus. Only good old fashioned soap, water and scrubbing are the most effective preventative measure. Always keep sick people at home and away from everyone else until they are healthy. Let’s make this year a healthy year and keep Norovirus away from everyone!