Staffers at a senior living facility in Oak Park Heights are working to contain the spread of a norovirus outbreak that has affected dozens of residents and employees since the gastrointestinal illness was first reported Jan. 4.

Officials at Boutwells Landing believe that around 10 percent of the 600 residents and about 15 percent of the nearly 400 employees have been affected, said Campus Administrator Wendy Kingbay.

So far, reported cases have been limited to the senior apartments, townhouses and assisted living apartments.

Activities and community gatherings at the senior facility have been canceled, and the dining rooms are closed in an effort to contain the outbreak. Meals are being delivered to residents in their apartments, and residents who aren't sick are being asked not to move between buildings on the campus.

Employees with symptoms were sent home and allowed to return to work when they had been symptom-free for 24 to 72 hours.

Though norovirus is often called the "stomach flu," it isn't related to influenza. It can spread by having direct contact with an infected person, consuming contaminated food or water, or touching contaminated surfaces and then putting your hands in your mouth. Symptoms often include vomiting and stomach flu and usually last for one to two days.

About half of all norovirus outbreaks reported to the Minnesota Department of Health occur in senior living facilities, said Amy Saupe, an epidemiologist with the department. Any setting where people live close together can facilitate the spread of the virus.

In the last month, the department has received 39 reports of norovirus outbreaks. That's pretty average for this time of year, Saupe said.

"It's very common and there's a seasonality to it," she said. "December and January are historically the biggest months for outbreaks."

The last outbreak requiring precautionary protocols at Boutwells was in 2010, Kingbay said.

"The health and well-being of residents is our highest priority," she said. "Our staff are trained and certified, and we regularly reinforce procedures and practices along with the diligence required to meet resident needs at the highest level possible. Due to the responsible actions of the staff and residents, the number of cases at Boutwells Landing is declining."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440