A highly contagious, gastrointestinal bug, best known in recent years for outbreaks that have sickened passengers on cruise ships, has been confirmed in the Moab area.

Over the past 10 days, the Southeastern Utah District Health Department (SEUHD) has seen an increase in incidence of norovirus.

Norovirus, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, is “the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the United States. Each year, it causes 19-21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths.”

Jennifer Sadoff, director of community relations for Moab Regional Hospital (MRH), said there have been approximately 20 patients that have come into the emergency room with similar gastrointestinal complaints over the past 20 days.

Just one case has been officially confirmed as norovirus, but the hospital said it is treating all gastrointestinal patients, with similar symptoms, as though they have the illness.

“We’re treating everything like it is norovirus,” Sadoff said.

Several patients had been hospitalized as a result of the illness, but as of Tuesday, July 1 all those had been discharged, Sadoff said. She said local residents, as well as visitors, have been affected.

Symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, non-bloody diarrhea, and stomach cramps. Some individuals may also experience a headache, body aches, and a low-grade fever. The SEUHD, in an unofficial statement, said people can experience the symptoms for two to three days, although most people will typically experience them for one to two days.

Most people do not require hospitalization for their symptoms. However, the CDC said some people become very dehydrated, especially young children and older adults. These people may require hospitalization. Symptoms of dehydration include decrease in urination, dry mouth and throat, and feeling dizzy.

Since norovirus is highly contagious, Sadoff said MRH is suggesting people remain at home for at least 72 hours after their symptoms have ceased.

“The primary thing is if people feel sick they should remain home and know they are contagious for 72 hours after symptoms have stopped,” she said. “Here at the hospital, we are saying for people to not return to work for 72 hours after symptoms have stopped. That would be something especially important for food workers.”

Sadoff said the hospital is also stressing people be vigilant with personal hygiene.

The SEUHD said norovirus is primarily transmitted through cross-contamination and can also survive on surfaces for an extended period of time. They suggest every case of vomiting be treated as if the person is infected with norovirus.

“The virus is very hardy and can live for long periods of time on surfaces if not properly cleaned,” SEUHD public information officer Terrie Wright said.

The CDC website says proper hygiene techniques for handling norovirus include washing hands with soap and warm water often and especially after using the restroom or before handling food; clean suspected infected surfaces with a chlorine bleach and water solution of 5-25 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water; and wash and dry any clothes or linens that may have been in contaminated with vomit or feces.

Health officials said speculation on social media in the Moab area had incorrectly suggested that local river or creek water was to blame for some cases of gastroenteritis. Health officials have established that local waterways are in fact safe for swimming, and are not a source of the norovirus.

Norovirus infection is confirmed through a stool sample. Currently, the SEUHD is not accepting samples from the general public.

“Any of our employees that get sick we are asking to send in a stool sample,” Sadoff said. “The health department is not collecting samples from general public, just people sick enough to be in the emergency room.”

Sadoff said the SEUHD is still trying to determine how many strains of the virus are in Moab right now. She said that since the Moab area has a lot of visitors, the virus could be coming from anywhere.

“It’s been here before and this is not a new thing to Moab,” she said. “It probably is, to some degree, always here, but right now there is a higher incidence of it.”

Health officials say those with symptoms of common, but highly contagious illness should stay home