Common Virus Linked to Increase in Nursing Home Deaths

A recent study links a relatively common virus to an increase in nursing home deaths in this country.

Norovirus is a virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea, and is commonly referred to as the "stomach flu." Those infected typically experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping, low-grade fevers, chills, and headaches. The virus is found in the stool of those already infected. It's primarily spread when others eat food or drink liquids contaminated by infected individuals, have direct contact with infected individuals, or come in contact with the virus on a contaminated surface. There is no treatment for norovirus other than increasing fluid intact to reduce the potentially serious consequences of dehydration.

While most people who become sick experience a full recovery, the virus is dangerous for the very young and the very old. The findings of a study released in November seem to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between this contagious illness and rising nursing home deaths and patient hospitalizations.

Nursing Home Deaths Rise 11 Percent During Norovirus Outbreaks

A medical student at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine conducted a two-year study of death rates and hospital admissions in three states that had the nation's highest rates of norovirus outbreaks in nursing homes - Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. His findings, published on the online version of "The Journal of the American Medical Association," show that during norovirus outbreaks, hospital admissions rose 9 percent and deaths among nursing home patients spiked even higher, to 11 percent.

The patient death rate in the 308 nursing homes included in the study was 41.9 per home-year when there were no outbreaks of norovirus. During outbreaks of the virus, the number of nursing home deaths rose to 53.7 per home-year.

Another pertinent finding is that nursing homes with lower levels of registered nursing home care (less than .75 hours per day per patient) had a significantly higher rate of deaths from the norovirus outbreak than nursing homes offering care above this threshold.

Steps Nursing Homes Can Take to Reduce Norovirus Outbreaks

Outbreaks of norovirus in nursing homes in this country are not uncommon. About 1,000 such events happen each year. But there are actions that nursing homes should take to help limit them:

  • Frequent hand washing by staff and residents
  • Increase emphasis on effectively disinfecting contaminated surfaces in nursing homes
  • Wash soiled clothing and bedding
  • Infected staff should stay home from work
  • Take steps to avoid contaminated food and water

This study was also presented at a meeting of infectious disease professionals. According to news reports of the presentation, the meeting's moderator, Dr. Carol Chenoweth of the University of Michigan Health System, said that one lesson learned from the study is that "more oversight of infection control in nursing homes" may be needed.

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