Pack an extra roll (or two) of toilet paper if you’re visiting Yellowstone or Grand Tetons National Parks in Montana this month. The parks are experiencing a norovirus outbreak that has sickened over 200 people so far, though mostly park staff. In spite of the parks’ efforts to contain the virus, it has still spread.
Reports started hitting the news around June 13, when 30 concessions employees at the Mammoth Hot Springs area of Yellowstone became ill. They likely contracted the virus from sick visitors on tour buses that came through the park the week before. The parks began asking sick employees to quarantine themselves to their rooms right away. Laboratory test results came back on June 12, confirming that norovirus is indeed the cause of illness.
By June 20th, the number of illnesses had blossomed to over 200, with approximately 150 ill staff members from both parks and at least 50 visitors who have sought medical attention for norovirus symptoms. The National Park Service and businesses serving park visitors have made efforts to control spread of the virus by increasing cleaning and disinfection of all public areas and isolating potentially infected employees until they have been free of symptoms for 72 hours. Stores, gift shops, restaurants, and lodgings have all received cleanings.
Officials are reminding the public that frequent hand washing with soap and water is the best way to protect yourself from norovirus, and that alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not a completely effective replacement for basic hand-washing. Hand washing is particularly important after using the bathroom and before preparing food.
Reports note that the park has not seen an outbreak of this magnitude for at least a decade, although gastrointestinal illnesses are a reality for busy, public places such as the park. Norovirus spreads easily person-to-person, so crowded areas are at risk, particularly when access to soap and water may be limited (such as camping). Ill food handlers are also often implicated in transmission of norovirus, so it is interesting that the first staff to fall ill were the concessions employees…hence the policy of excluding sick employees until they have been symptom free for at least 72 hours, the time period during which a sick person sheds the most virus. You can follow the unfolding of the outbreak with the following links: