Norovirus spurs rise in ED visits

Hospitals in numerous states have seen a rise in emergency department visits as norovirus rates climb. 

Norovirus outbreaks haveemerged across the U.S., U.K. and Canada in recent weeks, as cold weather brings people into closer contact indoors. The CDC tracks norovirus outbreaks across 14 states, though this data has not been updated since early January. In the week ending Jan. 2, there were 25 outbreaks, up from 14 the same period a year prior. 

ED visits for tell-tale symptoms of the highly contagious stomach bug have increased about 50 percent across New York City hospitals since the end of last year. Patients visiting EDs for vomiting rose from about 2,400 in early December to 3,700 in mid February, according to data from the city's health department cited by Gothamist. Visits for diarrhea also increased from 1,400 to 2,100 during the same period. 

Hospitals and health departments aren't required to report norovirus cases, but health officials believe it's the most likely culprit behind the uptick in visits for these symptoms. Christine Moe, PhD, a foodborne and waterborne diseases expert at Atlanta-based Emory University, told the Gothamist that outbreaks "with a lot of vomiting" are usually caused by norovirus versus other stomach bugs. 

"It's just an incredibly successful virus" in terms of infecting people, Dr. Moe told the Gothamist. Experts also urge people to stay vigilant with hand-washing and disinfecting, since alcohol-based hand sanitizers don't work against the virus. 

Many hospitals in Maryland are also seeing a rise in pediatric ED visits for stomach issues and dehydration, according Matthew Laurens, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.

"People have not been exposed to norovirus in the past few years. Therefore, their immunity to norovirus might be on the low end," he told NPR affiliate WYPR. "It might just spread very rapidly through the community like we saw with RSV, like we saw with influenza at the end of 2022. The fear is that it will spread like wildfire through communities because of a low level of community immunity."

Every year, norovirus is responsible for about 109,000 hospitalizations, 465,000 ED visits and 900 deaths, according to the CDC

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