Crippling Norovirus Sweeps The Campus

Beginning on February 11, Colgate’s Health Department treated an unusually large number of students for gastrointestinal illness. Symptoms including nausea, vomiting and diarrhea were reported in nearly every residence hall on campus, but those afflicted shared no special common characteristics; the Health Department immediately began keeping records of individuals who reported symptoms, and the Madison County Health Department was called in to perform tests on ill students and to inspect Colgate’s water supply and dining halls.       

Local tests performed at Colgate proved that the outbreak was not caused by bacteria; state tests performed later that week attributed the symptoms to “norovirus,” a particularly contagious virus which spreads largely through contact with contaminated surfaces. Norovirus is common in any situation where large groups of people live in close quarters like schools, hospitals, apartment complexes and even prisons, and it has been about five years since the last similar outbreak at Colgate.

According to the Center for Disease Control, norovirus kills 570 to 800 people each year in the United States. There is no vaccine for norovirus, and antibiotics have no effect. However, when symptoms are reported and treated promptly, norovirus is rarely a lethal or critical illness; usually, symptoms are uncomfortable and last a day or two, even with treatment. In normal circumstances, Colgate’s Health Services might treat one or two cases of gastrointestinal illness per day; between February 11 and February 14, over fifty individuals received treatment.

In response, the Colgate Buildings and Grounds team redoubled their efforts to keep Colgate’s campus clean. Extra hand sanitizer stations were installed, and dining facilities received extra attention from the cleaning staff, as did showers, bathrooms and other communal spaces. The Health Department sent out two emails warning students to wash their hands and to be cautious of the spreading illness. Dr. Merrill Miller, Colgate’s head physician, said that since the emails went out, reported cases of illness have drastically decreased.

“If we see one wave of illness, followed by a reduction in reported cases, we can usually determine that the illness has stopped spreading,” Miller said.

Miller said that if one wave of illness (fifty students) was followed quickly by another wave (another fifty students or more), the Colgate Emergency Management Team would be consulted, and extra measures, such as potentially including the stoppage of classes or the closure of certain buildings on campus, would be considered or implemented. However, she cautioned, the Health Department is optimistic that the virus’ spread has been halted because no second wave has been seen and as long as students continue to wash their hands, particularly after using the bathroom, the virus will likely die down. Miller also added that students who experience symptoms should report their illness, should avoid spicy or greasy foods and above all, should not go to class or work.

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