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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane health officials say risk of norovirus spreading widely is ‘extremely low’

From staff reports

Following a norovirus outbreak this weekend in two downtown Spokane homeless shelters, public health officials say the risk of the general population acquiring the virus is “extremely low.”

While norovirus is highly contagious and can be spread through food and water or by touching contaminated surfaces, health officials said Sunday that emergency rooms and health care providers were “not seeing an increase in patients exhibiting symptoms,” according to a Spokane Regional Health District news release.

Health district spokeswoman Kim Papich said infected people were starting to get better Sunday.

“We are keeping a close eye, but we are seeing improvement,” Papich said.

The shelters remained under quarantine as more than 60 people were sickened from the outbreak and 160 others were at risk of contracting the virus.

City officials erected a large tent in the street to house 40 homeless people who were not showing symptoms, which include severe nausea and vomiting, while 10 staff members recovered at home.

Officials are urging people who stayed at the House of Charity or Union Gospel Mission since Thursday to return to House of Charity, where paramedics from the Spokane Fire Department are on-site. The shelter also is equipped with portable bathrooms and hand-washing stations.

Despite no increase Sunday in patients exhibiting symptoms, health officials said more people could get sick, as those who recently stayed at either shelter might not be showing symptoms.

House of Charity housed 210 men, women and pets Friday night.

“It spread itself through the homeless community pretty bad,” said Catholic Charities Director Rob McCann, who oversees the Catholic Charities-run shelter. “But the city and emergency management task force has been mobilized.”

Symptoms of norovirus usually develop within 12 to 48 hours and range between severe nausea, diarrhea, fever, headaches and body aches. Notable outbreaks occur on cruise ships because it spreads rapidly in enclosed environments with a lot of people.

The best way to prevent getting sick is to wash hands thoroughly, particularly after using the bathroom and before eating. The illness is not life-threatening but can lead to dehydration.

About a dozen illnesses were reported at Union Gospel Mission, but most of those people had started to recover by Saturday evening, said Spokane Fire Department Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.