A brutal winter season appears to finally be tailing off, but one of winter’s nastier holdouts is sticking around Johnson County.
A fast-moving stomach virus is making another round through Johnson County and sending more people to their doctor’s office. Area hospitals are reporting as much as a 25 percent increase in patients at the emergency room, each exhibiting a combination of vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps.
Local health officials are recommending that people take extra care to wash their hands and stay hydrated to protect against the virus.
“It’s just like kindergarten — lots of hand washing, don’t share drinks, and stay home if you’re sick,” said Amanda Gonzalez, manager of Community Hospital South’s emergency department.
At Community Hospital South, during the past two weeks they have seen an increase of 20 to 25 percent in patients suffering from gastrointestinal illnesses. The disease causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, and typically lasts for about 24 hours.
Because a number of viruses can cause the symptoms, doctors at Community Hospital South haven’t been able to pinpoint the exact microbe, Gonzalez said. But the likely cause is a strain of microbe called a norovirus.
In late December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a warning of a particularly strong strain of the virus that had been detected. Not only does it resist some hand sanitizers and cleaning products, but just a few drops from a cough or sneeze can spread it to a large group of people.
Because it is so contagious, it seems to hit groups of people all at once, said Dr. Christopher Doehring, vice president of medical affairs at Franciscan St. Francis Health.
“That’s part of why we see it clustered; once it comes into a workplace or a school, it can spread quickly,” he said. “It’s not unlike what happens on cruise ships when you see some of those viruses sweep through.”
Franciscan St. Francis doctors also have seen an increase in recent weeks of patients complaining of gastrointestinal issues, Doehring said.
The disease is showing up later in the season than usual, but that’s not abnormal for winter.
“This time of year, there are a number of different types of viruses that can cause the (gastrointestinal) syndrome,” Doehring said. “Most of them are sporadic and emerge every year.”
The best protection against the virus is to make sure people keep their hands washed and sanitizer handy, he said.
He also recommended that if you start exhibiting the symptoms of the bug, to drink plenty of fluids to replace what is lost.
“The biggest thing, they make people feel bad because of the dehydration that ensues. You end up losing a lot of water weight and your electrolytes get out of balance,” Doehring said. “When you start having it come on, stay on top of the fluids and hydration.”
Patients suffering from the symptoms should check with their primary care physician first about treatment, but the emergency room is always available if the effects of the disease seem more severe, Gonzalez said.
Despite a slight increase of cases at hospitals, the sickness hasn’t been determined to be unusual for winters in Indiana, said Lisa Brown, director of nursing at the Johnson County Health Department. Their office hasn’t been aware of any wide-ranging illness that required additional investigation.
“It’s the time of year for the norovirus, that type of bug that cause those gastrointestinal problems. We wouldn’t get involved unless it was a big outbreak, but we haven’t received any calls and no one is complaining,” Brown said.
Local schools have not noticed any unusual increases in student absences so far, officials said.
At Creekside Elementary School in Franklin, attendance is better than it was last year, said principal Mark Heiden. Kent Pettet, principal at Needham Elementary School in Franklin, has not seen any unusual spikes in absences.
Health officials are hopeful that after this wave of illness ends, the yearly flu season will be over.
“We’re almost out of it, we’re almost to April, so let’s hope it stays away,” Brown said.