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California staffers at GOP convention suspected of contracting norovirus: Here’s what it does

Norovirus
Norovirus, a leading cause of foodborne illness in the United States, is believed to have struck California delegates to the GOP convention in Cleveland this week.
(Jessica A. Allen / CDC)

At least a dozen GOP staffers from California’s delegation to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland this week experienced vomiting, cramps and diarrhea, and the dreaded norovirus has been blamed for their gastrointestinal misery.

Erie County Health Department officials were  called to tthe delegation’s quarters at the Kalihari Resort in Sandusky, Ohio, about 60 miles from the site of the GOP convention, and collected fecal samples to confirm the diagnosis.

Norovirus is the most common cause of diarrheal episodes across the globe and one of the leading causes of foodborne disease outbreaks in the United States.

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Treated with rest and fluids, its symptoms of severe gastroenteritis generally wane after two or three days. But it claims the lives of 212,000 annually worldwide, mostly children and the elderly living in low- and middle-income countries.

Norovirus cannot be treated with antibiotics, because it’s not a bacterial infection. Physicians recommend that those afflicted with the virus rest and stay hydrated with drinks that replenish nutrients and minerals lost to vomiting. For those with severe symptoms, fluids need to be administered intraveneously.

Given the virus’ vast global impact, scientists are keen to develop a vaccine that would protect people from the infection. The problem: Norovirus is not a single virus, but a family of at least 29 different viral strains — different enough from one another that a single vaccine is unlikely to protect against the range of strains that circulate.

Moreover, the virus is in a constant state of evolution as it circulates from person to person in outbreaks around the globe. Like vaccines to protect against the influenza virus, a norovirus vaccine would have to be reformulated periodically — by some estimates, every two to four years — to keep up with the virus’ evolutionary “drift.” 

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The norovirus is highly contagious, spreading not only in food and in the air, but also when virus-laden particles settle or are deposited on surfaces touched by infected individuals. That explains why the infection spreads furiously when large numbers of people are eating, drinking and socializing in close quarters, such as on cruise ships and at conventions.

That’s also why afflicted staffers probably would have been as welcome inside Cleveland’s GOP convention hall as a band of rabid Hillary Clinton supporters: Those who were sick were quarantined in their rooms — with fluids delivered to their doors — until all symptoms cleared, and several severely dehydrated staffers went to local hospitals to replenish their fluids.

By Wednesday, state GOP officials told The Times the delegation had seen no new cases and concluded that the outbreak had probably been contained.

According to the Los Angeles Times’ Seema Mehta, “the 550-member delegation was warned of the outbreak by state GOP officials in an email at 2:40 a.m. Tuesday. They were advised to avoid shaking hands with others, to wash hands frequently, to avoid sharing food and to not use the delegation buses to the convention if they have any symptoms — all difficult rules to follow at a political convention.”

In the United States, some 6% of the population contracts norovirus yearly, and young children are at highest risk of both contracting and spreading the virus. Indeed, Mehta reports, Erie County Health Commissioner Pete Schade surmises the dreaded virus may have been introduced to the California Republicans by an infant traveling with one of the group who contracted the bug in California.

melissa.healy@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATMelissaHealy

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UPDATES:

July 21, 8:50 a.m.: This article was updated with reporting that the outbreak has apparently been contained.

This article was originally published at 1:50 p.m., July 20.


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