Norovirus: to close or not to close?

Noroviruses belong to the genus norovirus and the family caliciv

The Journal of Infectious Diseases has just published a special issue on norovirus, which is well worth reading. When norovirus strikes, there is an inclination to close the ward to new admissions at the earliest available opportunity in order to protect incoming patients. But when should the ward closure trigger be pulled? Not at all, as recommended by latest UK guidelines (risking continuation of the outbreak, fed by a steady stream of new victims…I mean admissions), when you get a single case of vomiting or diarrhoea (lots of unnecessary ward closure) or only when you have a lab confirmed outbreak on your hands (by which time the horse has already bolted and galloped through your hospital). The special issue included a useful modelling study providing some idea of the impact of various approaches to ward closure in response to noro outbreaks.

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The effect of closing and cleaning wards on infection rates

Not so long ago, the UK Government ordered a national ‘deep clean’. This prompted a fair amount of debate among experts and the public. If the NHS needed a spring clean, then does that mean that it was dirty in the first place? Perhaps. There does not seem to have been a formal evaluation of impact, but there is some rationale for closing and cleaning wards. For example, this paper from the early 1970s evaluated the impact of closing and cleaning five wards in London.

The five wards (four surgical and one medical) had an outbreak of MRSA (termed ‘cloxacillin-resistant S. aureus’). Rates of infection (termed ‘sepsis’) were monitored on the study wards before and after closing and cleaning. Wards were closed to admissions and emptied of patients. All fabrics were sent for laundering and all left over supplies were discarded. Cleaning comprised washing floors, walls and all other surfaces with hot water containing detergent; bed frames and furniture were also washed. The length of time that all this cleaning too is not specified, but I suspect it took place over several days. Crucially, staff and patients were screened for carriage of epidemic strains of S. aureus; colonised patients were not re-admitted after ward cleaning where possible.

The charts below show the impact on all infections (Figure 1), all S. aureus infection (Figure 2) and MRSA infection (Figure 3). Infection rates were compared 3 months before vs. 3 months after cleaning on Wards 1-3 and 6 months before vs. 6 months after on Wards 4 and 5. As you can see, the impact was pretty dramatic.

Noone Fig 1

Figure 1. Total infection rate (proportion of admissions infected) on the five wards before vs. after ward closing and cleaning.

Noone Fig 2

Figure 2. S. aureus infection rate (proportion of admissions infected) on the five wards before vs. after ward closing and cleaning.

Noone Fig 3

Figure 3. MRSA infection rate (proportion of admissions infected) on the five wards before vs. after ward closing and cleaning.

The poor reduction in total infection rate on Ward 1, a gynecological ward, (Figure 1) is largely due to high Gram-negative infection rates before and after cleaning, most likely explained by endogenous urinary tract infections. Reductions in total infection rate and S. aureus infection rate appeared to be less on Wards 4 and 5, which could be influenced by the fact that rates were compared for 6 months pre and post ward closing and cleaning rather than 3 months on Wards 1-3. The impact of a one off environmental intervention is likely to diminish over time. It’s also interesting to note that the MRSA infections identified on Ward 5, a general surgical ward, after cleaning were due to a different strain of MRSA (determined by phage typing and antibiogram) than before cleaning. This new strain matched the outbreak strain from Ward 2. Two of the patients on Ward 5 who became infected with this strain were operated on in the same theatre as the infected patients from Ward 2 within two weeks of one another. Four other patients (on different wards) also appeared to acquire the strain in the same operating theatre.

The study has several important limitations. It is not possible to be certain whether active screening and isolation or ward closing and cleaning were responsible for the reduction in infection rates; it was probably combined impact. The study design lacked the rigor of more modern investigations: infection rates were not expressed in terms of patient-days and infection rates were compared for different time periods making direct comparison of the impact across the five wards difficult. Also, no environmental sampling was conducted to demonstrate the efficacy of the cleaning procedure (both initially and in terms of recontamination).

Notwithstanding these limitations, the study provides evidence that ward closing and cleaning combined with active screening and selective readmission resulted in a dramatic reduction in the rate of nosocomial infection on five study wards. The impact appeared to be most pronounced in the first three months, which is consistent with a reduction in environmental contamination. Outbreaks of MRSA were eradicated by closing and cleaning on all five study wards. However, there was evidence of new nosocomial transmission following the re-admission of infected patients. Finally there was some interesting circumstantial evidence of transmission within operating theatres.

Article citation: Noone P, Griffiths RJ. The effect of sepsis rates of closing and cleaning hospital wards. J Clin Pathol 1971;24:721-725.