Rumors have circulated Bates about the sudden aggressive illness which affected a significant portion of the student body last week. Health Services has confirmed that this outbreak was the result of a highly-contagious gastrointestinal (GI) virus.
While contagious illnesses are nothing new on college campuses, especially one as small as Bates, this virus hit hard with little notice. The GI virus peaked last Monday night into Tuesday with numerous students suddenly falling ill. It continued to affect a smaller number of students later in the week.
“I think this outbreak was most surprising because we’ve had norovirus on campus, but [it has] never [hit] so many people, so severely, and all at once,” Wendy Memishian ’19 said.
The Health Center serves an average total of 20-30 students each day, both walk-ins and appointments. Between Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon, Health Services saw nearly 100 confirmed cases of the virus. This is just the number of students who visited the Health Center; the true number of students who contracted the virus is likely much higher.
Since the GI bug hit, Batesies have speculated a variety of causes. One of the most popular insists that this sudden illness was the result of food poisoning, either from Gala or Commons. However, Health Services was quick to debunk this rumor.
“There were a lot of people who knew it was the romaine lettuce and knew it was the vegan bar and knew it was the lobster from Gala—we didn’t see any trends like that,” Abigail Alfred, Manager of Outreach and Support Services at Health Services, said. “There was no clear thing that everybody ate, so our medical provider ruled out food borne illness quickly.”
She confirmed that this illness is undoubtedly contagious.
“There were so many rumors because I think people wanted to feel like they knew what was going on so they could prevent it,” Memishian said. “That was the scary part, not knowing if you were about to be the next victim of the mysterious illness.”
Professor of Biology Karen Palin, Ph.D. explained how an investigation would look if the illness was suspected to be the result of food poisoning.
“To conclude that an illness is foodborne…we would look for biological evidence that the microbe was in the food. The second part of this would involve [talking] with those affected to get a food history of what every person who might have come into contact with the suspected agent eaten or drunk…We could do an investigation of this sort because Commons saves and stores samples of all food prepared and served for three days. Do we need to in this situation? No.”
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that GI viruses are a type of Norovirus which are extremely contagious, spreading through vomit and fecal matter. Common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach pain lasting for up to 48 hours.
“I suspect that people being in close contact, like at parties, especially at this point in the semester when stress is high and sleep is at a minimum, is a contributing factor,” Professor Palin said. Without knowing the exact details, she hypothesized that this outbreak was likely caused by a single or few people who brought the virus to campus.
“Individuals who are infected shed literally billions of virus particles in feces and vomit,” Professor Palin said. “These particles can be aerosolized, landing on plates, floors, toilet seats, tissues, towels, hands, skin, computers, cell phones, copy machines, everywhere. One only needs to come into contact with 10-100 viral particles to be infected.”
She continued to explain that the norovirus can remain in the environment for a relatively long period of time and is not inactivated with hand sanitizer. Thorough hand washing, she insists, is the best preventative for contracting contagious viruses.
Alfred stated that outbreaks like this are not uncommon on college campuses and Health Services was never overly concerned. While she said that some students were brought to the hospital last week, she was unaware of whether these cases were related to the GI virus.
Bates EMS declined to comment on their involvement with the outbreak.