New Strain Of Norovirus Hits Hard

Six weeks ago, 82-year-old Roccina Scuvera battled wicked stomach bug.

"I was throwing up, I had a headache," she said. "It was not pleasant."

The norovirus had just paid a visit to Massachusetts' largest nursing home, Hebrew SeniorLife, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

The staff at the Boston-area nursing home and rehab center had been bracing for the norovirus. Approximately 3,700 cases had swamped local emergency rooms in January and the facility issued a warning asking residents and staff to be on the lookout for symptoms of vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

The norovirus is a very common virus. By the age of four, almost every child has had some form. But the virus that hit Hebrew Seniorlife was a new strain: stronger, longer lasting, and more contagious.

In approximately 36 hours, beginning on February 21, the norovirus quickly spread from one unit of five people to at least three or four other floors. The virus passed from person to person by touch or through food.

Nurses at SeniorLife quickly found that the hospital germicidals they used had no effect on the virus. They quickly switched to bleach-based cleansing products. The facility closed all group facilities and cancelled classes. Religious ceremonies were broadcast over the television system. They shut down the salad bar and outside food gifts were banned.

Over the course of a month, nearly 500 staff members and patients came down with the new strain. Since staff members were calling in sick and not allowed to return to work until 72 hours after the final symptom disappeared, SeniorLife had to bring in outside agencies to meet the increased demand for laundry and cleaning services, reports Miller.

"I felt like I was taking a final every single day for a month, without taking a breather," said Lisa Graves, a nurse practitioner who was one of the staff members in charge of combating the spread of infectious diseases.

In 25 years of practice, Dr. Robert Schreiber, physician-in-chief at Hebrew SeniorLife, says he has never seen anything so contagious.

"The bug was the worst we have ever seen in terms of outbreaks," he said. "The way it's spread, despite the fact we were prepared for this, demonstrated that we were dealing with something new. We have had flu outbreaks here that were nothing compared to what we experienced here."