Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS) is investigating a tenfold increase in the number of norovirus outbreaks in the region’s early learning services (ELSs) in the last month.
During November, ARPHS responded to 29 norovirus outbreaks, with 21 of these being in ELS facilities. Around 64 staff and 280 attendees of these ELSs became unwell.
Medical Officer of Health Dr Jay Harrower says this is a significant increase on 2019 numbers.
“In the same period last year, we responded to a total of nine norovirus outbreaks, with only two of these being in early learning services. Six staff and 29 attendees became ill as a result.”
Norovirus symptoms can include feeling or being sick, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, headache, low-grade fever, chills and muscle aches. Symptoms usually last for two days. Good hand hygiene – washing and drying hands thoroughly and often – is the most important action to take in preventing spread of the virus.
Dr Harrower says ARPHS has identified that some centres with outbreaks have been cleaning with ammonia-based products as these are marketed as inactivating the coronavirus (COVID-19).
“There is a common factor in the sharp rise in norovirus outbreaks in Auckland early learning centres over the last two months. Most of the centres with norovirus have moved away from chlorine bleach for cleaning.”
He is asking centres to use hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) products for all cleaning, and to use them regularly and thoroughly.
“It is hypochlorite or bleach that will kill norovirus on surfaces, and can also prevent the spread of coronavirus as well. Ammonia and alcohol based solutions do not completely inactivate norovirus,” he says.
Norovirus can survive outside the body, so hard surfaces, toys, plates, cutlery and other objects can become contaminated and lead to others becoming ill.
Dr Harrower says because norovirus is highly contagious, one child at a centre with the illness can spread it rapidly to many other children, to staff and to their families at home.
“While most people make a quick and full recovery, very young children can become unwell enough to need hospital care.
“It can be difficult for whānau to take time off work when they have sick children, but it is important to remind parents and caregivers that tummy bugs are very contagious. It is highly likely your child will infect others, and outbreaks can lead to centre closures.”
In contrast to early learning services, the number of norovirus outbreaks in aged residential care is dropping and is below the same time last year.
ARPHS has written to managers of all early learning services about the recent spike in outbreaks, asking them to send children home if they have diarrhoea or vomiting. They should not return until symptoms have stopped for at least 48 hours.
The advice is for everyone in a centre to wash their hands often and thoroughly, with warm water and soap, and dry well with a paper towel before and after eating, and after toileting. Very young children should be supervised if necessary. Staff should also wash hands well after changing nappies or handling soiled clothing.