Elderly couple with health conditions contract norovirus visiting a friend at Canberra Hospital

Glynis Quinlan 10 August 2018

Some cases of norovirus have been identified at Canberra Hospital but ACT Health says they are not clustered together.

An elderly couple who believe they contracted the highly contagious norovirus when visiting a 97-year-old friend at Canberra Hospital are concerned that they were not warned about visiting or asked to wear protective gear until an hour into their visit when it was too late.

Fewer than five cases of norovirus – sometimes called the winter vomiting disease – have been identified at Canberra Hospital, with ACT Health saying the cases are not clustered together and therefore it is not considered to be an outbreak similar to that declared by Calvary Public Hospital on Monday.

Robert and Julie Dew, both in their 70s, came down with norovirus earlier this week after visiting their friend in Canberra Hospital last Friday. Their friend’s partner, an 87-year-old woman, was with them at the time and also came down with the virus – and is still in hospital with it.

The Dews’ daughter, Natalie Grey, told The RiotACT that the impact of norovirus on her parents could have been severe given that her mother has multiple sclerosis and her father has advanced heart disease, which means that his fluid balance can be very important.

“My parents are in their mid-70s and their friend is 87 – that puts them in the high-risk category for deaths,” Ms Grey said.

“Fortunately, they are alright but potentially it could have been a lot worse.”

Ms Grey said that her parents visited their 97-year-old friend on Wednesday last week and again last Friday – the day when she believes they were infected.

She said that her parents have no medical training and did not realise that their friend had a contagious virus.

Ms Grey, a pharmacist who did clinical training at Canberra Hospital, said that her parents and their 87-year-old friend stopped at the nursing station on Friday to ask where their friend was and nobody warned them not to visit him. They also didn’t see any signage warning them on the door of the room.

“The nurses did not warn them that their friend was infectious and they did not warn them that they needed protective equipment,” Ms Grey said.

Ms Grey said her parents told her that three nurses came into the room during their visit on Friday – with the first nurse not saying anything to them about the risk, the second telling them they should be wearing gowns and gloves and only the third nurse telling them they shouldn’t be there and should be wearing masks.

She said that her parents and their friend had already been in the room for an hour by then and the elderly patient had been coughing and vomiting for much of that time. Ms Grey said that, when the vomiting originally started, her mother went to find a nurse to let them know about the vomiting and was given a vomiting bag.

“I’m absolutely furious that my elderly mother was handed a vomiting bag and sent into a room with a highly infectious vomiting patient to handle the job herself,” Ms Grey said.

Ms Grey said that the 87-year-old woman was rushed by ambulance to Calvary Hospital on Sunday with “prolific vomiting” and is still there. Ms Grey’s mother came down with the virus in the early hours of Monday morning and also went to Calvary but was sent home late that day because it was perceived to be safer to be away from the outbreak there. Her father became sick on Wednesday but decided to stay at home.

Opposition says hospital should warn people

Opposition Health spokesperson Vicki Dunne said that norovirus is very easily spread and the Dews and their friends should have been warned about it and given protective clothing.

“When this risk arises it’s incumbent upon the hospital to warn people,” Ms Dunne said.

“I don’t know what the infection protocols were that were in place but they breached the common-sense protocols. They did not warn people, they did not give people protective clothing and as a result of this we have seen people who have become infected.”

Norovirus is a leading cause of gastroenteritis.

Canberra Hospital maintains protocols were followed

The Senior Specialist in Infectious Diseases at Canberra Hospital, Associate Professor of Medicine, Sanjaya Senanayake, said he could not speak about a specific case but the hospital did not believe there had been any breach of infection control or signage protocols.

“We always ensure that we have appropriate signage and we have infection control protocols that are followed through by ward staff and the infection control unit of the hospital,” he said.

Norovirus is a leading cause of gastroenteritis and Public Health Specialist, Dr Vanessa Johnston said that the ACT has had “a pretty bad year for viral gastroenteritis”.

Dr Johnston said that in the year to date, there have been 90 outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis in ACT aged care facilities, childcare facilities and the like, compared to 71 in the whole of 2017.

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