Fast-spreading illness is usually brief but intense

By Ann McCreary

A stomach flu bug has been traveling through the Methow Valley population over the past few weeks, affecting children and adults.

“We’re calling it gastroenteritis,” said Mistie Painter, a registered nurse at Family Health Centers in Twisp. “We’ve seen a variety of degrees of illness — some people with a little nausea … some with days of vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue.”

“It’s not like everyone got it all at once. It’s working its way through,” said Laura Brumfield, nurse for the Methow Valley School District. She said students and teachers began staying home sick around mid-October, when she made a report to the county health department, and the illness was still circulating last week. “I’m hearing it’s a 24-hour thing,” Brumfield said.

“The sickness is usually brief, lasting only one to three days,” said Lauri Jones, Okanogan County community health director.

The illness is most likely caused by the norovirus, which is spread by eating contaminated foods or liquids, touching contaminated surfaces or objects and then placing hands in the mouth, or having direct contact with a person who is infected and showing symptoms, Jones said.

“It seems to be hitting grownups as much as kids,” said Bob Winters, principal at Methow Valley Elementary School. “Classified staff, teachers — everybody seems to be taking a turn.” Winters said he didn’t escape either, and was ill for about a day. The school has had to tap its supply of substitute teachers over the past few weeks, he said.

The illness has been persistent, but hasn’t resulted in large numbers of students absent at once, Winters said. The highest absentee number at the elementary school was 22 students, about 6 ½ percent of the student body, in mid-October. For Liberty Bell High School the highest absenteeism was 16 students, approximately 5 percent of the study body, about two weeks ago.

“We’ve had our fair share of stomach flu,” said Trudi Garing, financial manager at Little Star Montessori School in Winthrop. “It’s been a strong bug. We went through a period of having one teacher missing every day. Most people were just gone one day. It hit about one-fourth of our staff.” She estimated that less than one-fourth of the students have been sick.

Easily spread

“This particular type of virus is very infectious,” said Jesse Charles, a family medicine doctor at Confluence Health’s Winthrop clinic. “Obviously in any area where people are in close quarters it can spread easily.”

“It’s easy for everyone in the household to get it because it’s so infectious … and it can spread easily in the schools,” Charles said.

The illness is commonly referred to as “stomach flu,” but it should not be confused with influenza, a respiratory illness that the flu shot is intended to prevent, said Charles.

“There’s a misconception that it’s the flu. We’ve seen several patients who said, ‘I got the flu shot so I should be protected,’” he said. “The only protection is hygiene, hand washing and staying well-hydrated.”

Treatment for gastroenteritis involves “comfort measures — supportive care until it passes,” said Painter of Family Health Centers. Rest and plenty of liquids are the principal ways to treat the illness until it passes. Most patients don’t need to see a doctor unless they are unable to hold down liquids or experiencing severe fatigue, she said.

The potential complication of greatest concern is dehydration that could result if a person can’t retain liquids over a prolonged period. Painter said the Twisp clinic has given intravenous fluids to about three patients to prevent dehydration. “A healthy person typically can just rest, and take in fluids,” Painter said.

It’s important to wait for 24 hours after symptoms are gone before returning to school or work to avoid infecting others and to regain strength after being sick, said Brumfield. “It gives your body a chance to catch its breath after being sick.”

Prevention is primarily through washing hands thoroughly, said health professionals. “We tell people to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ while you’re washing hands to make sure you wash long enough,” Charles said.