Sullivan County Health Department Director Gary Mayes said samples from several individuals that were sent off for testing came back positive at the beginning of the week for norovirus, which is also known as gastroenteritis or stomach flu.
In all, the health department received 27 reports of suspected norovirus between mid-January and Feb. 1 that originated at one location. Mayes said the samples that came back positive were received from only a few individuals and not from all 27 who filed reports.
Most of the reports of norovirus symptoms came from individuals who participated in birthday parties the weekend of Jan. 17 at a Kingsport business.
As a result of those reports, Mayes said the Sullivan County Health Department began conducting an epidemiological investigation of the suspected illness. Environmentalists from the Tennessee Department of Health were also called in to assist with the investigation and help prevent the virus’ spread.
Mayes said the owners of the business were “extremely cooperative” with investigators and followed steps from the state environmentalist to mitigate the spread of norovirus.
Individuals who contracted the virus were described as being extremely ill, with symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea.
Norovirus outbreaks are considered serious public health problems because of the ease with which the illness can spread. The virus can be contracted through contaminated food or drink, as well as surfaces or objects that have been exposed to it. Children, the elderly and those with existing medical issues are considered to be the highest risk groups for norovirus.
Frequent hand washing, especially while in public, is considered the best way to avoid contracting norovirus.
CDC figures show norovirus is estimated to cause 56,000 to 71,000 hospitalizations annually and 570 to 800 deaths each year in the United States.
According to area health officials, the presence of illness in the region is not an isolated event, due in large part to the fact that it is now “norovirus season.”
Wellmont Health Systems said its hospital emergency rooms have seen consistent cases of norovirus from Norton to Kingsport since the middle of December.