Highly contagious illness closes QC hospital to visitors

  • Jan. 23, 2012 6:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinfret–The Queen Charlotte hospital was closed to visitors this week after it was hit by a severe outbreak of gastro-intestinal illness. Several patients, half the nursing staff, a doctor and other hospital workers all became sick with the highly-contagious illness, which causes vomiting, nausea and diarrhea. “They definitely have been hit very hard,” said Dr. David Bowering, Northern Health’s chief medical officer. Dr. Bowering said samples have been sent off-island for analysis, but it seemed clear that the Queen Charlotte infection is a type of noro-virus. “It’s not that uncommon, unfortunately,” he said. “It’s not unusual at all for this time of year.” The illness, also known informally as “winter vomiting disease” is not usually life-threatening but is severely uncomfortable, he said. It’s marked by a sudden onset of vomiting, diarrhea, chills, fever and cramps lasting from 12 hours to a couple of days. “You get very sick, very suddenly,” Dr. Bowering said. The virus does pose a threat to elderly patients and very young children, he said. The illness spreads easily from person to person, which makes hospitals, long-term care facilities and schools prime sites for outbreaks. Larger hospitals put people with noro-virus into separate areas from other patients to prevent it from spreading, but that’s impossible in a small hospital like Queen Charlotte, Dr. Bowering said. So many nurses were sick in Queen Charlotte that Northern Health was discussing the option of bringing in nurses from Masset or Prince Rupert, but as of Monday had decided that step wouldn’t be needed, he said. Bringing in other staff poses additional problems: travel can be difficult at this time of year, and it’s possible for staff to bring the virus back to their home hospital. According to Northern Health, there has been a spike in the number of cases of gastro-intestinal illness all across the northwest. A long-term care facility in Smithers and three elementary schools on the mainland have also been hit. People who are sick with vomiting or diarrhea should stay home while they are ill and for 48 hours afterwards, to prevent spreading it to others, according to Northern Health. The agency also advises people to wash their hands carefully and often, and to clean and disinfect common touch surfaces like door knobs, faucets, telephones, handrails and so on.