Norovirus is suspected of sickening a dozen people at the House of Charity, sparking concerns that a second wave of the vomit-inducing illness is sweeping through the downtown homeless shelter.
Health officials say 12 people with nausea, diarrhea and vomiting were hospitalized this week. They are awaiting lab results to confirm whether the symptoms were caused by norovirus, which sickened some 80 people in November.
Catholic Charities Director Rob McCann said another outbreak of that scale could be catastrophic. The shelter’s bathrooms have been under renovation for two weeks, meaning there’s no place for people to wash themselves inside the building, and making it more difficult to quarantine the infected while housing others who aren’t sick.
Another outbreak, McCann said, “is not something the building can physically handle.”
Local authorities are preparing for a range of scenarios. At worst, McCann said, the shelter would be forced to close or temporarily relocate.
“I don’t know what that would look like,” he said. “We’re all hoping it doesn’t come to that.”
In November norovirus made dozens of people ill at the House of Charity and Union Gospel Mission, prompting a quarantine until work crews could bleach-clean the buildings and supplies, from coffee pots and counters to doorknobs and toilet seats.
Infected people were kept inside the building while hundreds of uninfected people who use the House of Charity for shelter were steered outside to a huge heated tent with rows of sleeping cots. Catholic Charities said the outbreak cost the nonprofit at least $30,000.
McCann said people would sleep in the House of Charity through Monday night, and anyone displaying symptoms would be hospitalized immediately. About 270 people sleep there on an average night, many of them on the floor, McCann said.
“The good news is that’s 270, 280, sometimes 300 people who aren’t sleeping outside in Spokane, Washington,” he said, stressing how many people would be left in the cold if the shelter were to close.
Norovirus spreads quickly in schools, cruise ships, daycare centers and nursing homes – places where people are kept in close proximity. McCann said the two recent outbreaks are the first he’s seen during his 17 years with Catholic Charities, and they are likely because the shelter now allows more people to sleep there at night.
The first outbreak came weeks after the House of Charity began offering an overflow sleeping area for men and women downstairs.
Symptoms begin 12 to 48 hours after a person comes into contact with norovirus. They include severe nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, fever, headaches and body aches.
There is no specific treatment for the illness, which usually lasts one to three days, according to the Spokane Regional Health District. The best defense is good hygiene, including hand washing with soap and water or sanitizer.
At the shelter Monday, the health district and House of Charity managers were working to identify the source of the virus. They were also disinfecting the shelter and the portable restrooms that people have been using during the renovation.
“If we wake up tomorrow morning and there’s no new cases, then we know we’ve rode this out,” McCann said, noting that the symptoms appear to be less severe than before. “It’s a much kinder and gentler norovirus than we saw in November. So we’re hopeful.”
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Staff writer Chad Sokol contributed to this report.
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