Flu Virus is Down, but not Out

Doctors say hygiene is key to ward off flu and norovirus

While North Carolina has seen a decrease in reported flu cases this past week, Duke community members should still be diligent in avoiding both the seasonal flu and the return of another bug - the norovirus.

After the percentage of visits to North Carolina hospitals for influenza-like illness peaked at about 9 percent at the end of December, that number has dropped to 5.5 percent this week. The state Division of Health and Human Services reported that the Triangle has the most North Carolina residents with flu-like symptoms. However, Duke officials are still encouraging students, faculty and staff to continue to use proper hygiene to ward off infection. So far, about 21,700 employees have received the seasonal flu vaccination.

"While there haven't been significant numbers of reported infections among employees and students, the flu in our community at-large is still widespread," said Dr. Carol Epling, director of Duke's Employee Occupational Health and Wellness. "That's why it's important to take steps like washing your hands often. With an informed and active population, we're hopeful to keep the flu at bay."

Faculty, staff and students can still receive a free seasonal flu shot on campus. For employees, the vaccine is offered Monday to Friday at the Employee Occupational Health and Wellness office. Students can receive the shot at the Student Health Center. During a special vaccine clinic Jan. 15, employees and students with a DukeCard can receive the shot from 6 to 8 p.m. in the West Union.

Across the state there have been 17 deaths associated with the seasonal flu, 13 of which were residents 65 or older. The biggest change in this flu season has been its early peak in late-December.

An added concern has been the recent presence of the norovirus.

Eric Nickens, information and communications manager for the Durham County Department of Public Health, said that the county has seen three separate cases of norovirus since Jan. 1.

Norovirus is a highly contagious illness characterized by acute vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and some stomach cramping for a period of one to three days. Some people may also have a low fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and a general sense of tiredness. Dehydration is the most common complication.

"We are definitely emphasizing the importance of hand washing," Nickens said. "It's a common misconception that hand sanitizer can knock the norovirus out, but that's not the case. Good old-fashioned hand washing is the only way to eliminate the spread of norovirus."

Noroviruses are found in the stool and vomit of infected people and can be spread from person to person, through contaminated food or water, and by touching contaminated surfaces.

If experiencing an illness consistent with norovirus infection, employees should stay out of work until 24 hours after all symptoms have resolved. This is especially true for healthcare workers and dining services staff who could potentially transmit infection to a large number of people. Students with norovirus symptoms should remain in their rooms and minimize contact with others to limit the spread of the virus. 

Any suspected cases of a norovirus infection among students should be reported to Student Health at (919) 681-9355). If symptoms occur at work, employees should notify the Employee Occupational Health and Wellness hotline (919) 684-8115 for monitoring of a potential outbreak on campus. All healthcare workers and dining employees with symptoms of a norovirus infection must contact the EOHW hotline to be cleared to return to work.