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Suspected Norovirus Strikes Oregon Women’s Prison

At least two dozen female prisoners in Oregon were overcome by flu-like symptoms, causing prison officials to quarantine their unit and cancel visitation.

On May 12, 2010, Oregon Department of Corrections (ODOC) officials isolated all of the women in a minimum-security unit of the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF) after four prisoners suffered severe gastrointestinal problems. Within 24 hours, the number of sick prisoners had grown to at least 24, according to ODOC spokeswoman Jana Wong.

Symptoms included nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and respiratory problems, stated William Keene, senior epidemiologist for Oregon’s Public Health Division. While the cause of the outbreak was not clear, Keene identified norovirus as a prime suspect. He did not believe food poisoning was responsible. “The unit doesn’t have its own food preparation,” he noted. “If it was being prepared in the kitchen, you’d expect [the illness] to be more spread out.”

There have been at least 21 similar outbreaks – known among medical professionals as desmoteric clusters – in Oregon jails and prisons since 2000. Many of those were caused by norovirus, which is transmitted in feces. The disease spreads from person to person but can also live on surfaces for several days.

On May 13, 2010, two public health officials visited CCCF to interview patients and take stool samples and nasal and throat swabs for testing, according to Keene. No staff members became sick, the illness did not reach the medium-security section of the prison and no prisoners required outside medical care, said Wong.

Prison officials reminded prisoners and staff to take precautions to prevent the spread of illness, such as thoroughly washing hands with soap and water and sanitizing surfaces. They also temporarily closed the minimum-security visitation area which holds visits on Fridays, weekends and holidays.

Sources: The Oregonian, Associated Press

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