Four residents of the state veterans home in Minneapolis died over the weekend from a possible outbreak of a highly contagious foodborne illness that is particularly dangerous to the sick and elderly.

The home has put a hold on new admissions, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs said in a statement Thursday. In addition, more than a dozen employees reportedly called in sick.

The illnesses are being looked at as a possible outbreak of noro­virus. Norovirus causes vomiting, diarrhea and cramps, and each year causes up to 70,000 hospitalizations and 800 deaths, mostly in young children and the elderly.

The 300-bed facility, the largest of five state-operated homes, has been the subject of repeated state and federal investigations and in the past three years there have been four suspicious deaths, including improper drug dosages.

State veterans officials confirmed Thursday that four residents died since the beginning of the outbreak March 7, but the cause remains under investigation because the residents had other health complications. There has also been one confirmed hospitalization because of the virus.

The Minnesota Department of Health said Thursday that the Minneapolis home reported a suspected outbreak of norovirus last week involving eight residents in a 30-person unit and then reported back to say the illnesses included a second unit. It had no information on the number of employees who might have been affected.

The department sent informational materials and testing kits to the home and is in daily contact with officials there.

The Health Department also had no information on the deaths, but spokesman Doug Schultz said it would not be unusual for that information to become available after reports and tests are returned.

The Health Department did not order any quarantines, but Schultz said it is common to limit visitors and restrict movement in units of nursing homes or other similar facilities when an outbreak occurs.

The residents who died have not been identified.

Stay away for now

The State Veterans Department said in a statement that it has put a temporary hold on any new admissions and is monitoring the situation daily. In many cases, residents are staying in their units for meals to limit exposure. The home is also limiting group activities.

The home also is asking staffers who have come down with the virus to stay away from work for 48 hours after their symptoms end. The home also told its volunteer workers to stay away for the time being.

While it investigates the illnesses, veterans officials said that it is common for nursing homes, hospitals and care facilities to experience outbreaks of the illness because of the nature of how it is spread and the physical vulnerability of patients and residents. The home has not been hit as hard this year as in previous years, officials said.

Recent outbreaks

Norovirus is most prevalent during November, December and January, but there have been some recent outbreaks in Minnesota. A Brooklyn Park Caribou Coffee reopened this week following an apparent outbreak last week.

Veterans facilities across the country have been hit by outbreaks. At a veterans home in White City, Ore., last week, 125 veterans and about 25 staff members reported becoming stricken with norovirus. A federal VA facility in Boise, Idaho, was quarantined last week because of an outbreak.

The Minneapolis vets' home is located on a 53-acre campus in south Minneapolis.