UPDATED: Friday October 3, 2008: 7:56 p.m.
At least 190 students have fallen victim to a campus outbreak of a highly contagious virus that can be transmitted either through contaminated food or person-to-person contact, according to university officials and the D.C. Department of Health.
The virus, called norovirus, causes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps, as well as fever, muscle aches, headaches and fatigue. Symptoms usually appear 24 to 72 hours after exposure to the virus and can last for one to two days, although there are no known long-term health effects.
“All of the stool samples have been confirmed as norovirus,” Pierre Vigilance, the director of the D.C. health department, said in a press conference yesterday afternoon in Riggs Library.
Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson reported in a broadcast email late Friday afternoon that the total number of patients treated for norovirus has risen to 192, a count that for the first time includes two university employees who have been responding to the needs of ill students over the past few days.
Vigilance said at the press conference that the evidence does not point to food as the cause of the virus; however, he ruled out drawing any conclusions until the investigation is completed. He said the DOH hopes to complete testing within 24 hours.
“We are in the process of making determinations of where things started. We know a number of the students ate at [the dining hall],” Vigilance said.
O’Donovan Hall reopened last night for dinner with officials saying that sterilization of the building was completed today. The dining hall was closed Wednesday morning after several students reported gastrointestinal symptoms the night before, and temporary dining services were offered in the Leavey Center.
The health department believes the norovirus is confined to Georgetown, Vigilance added.
James Welsh, Georgetown’s assistant vice president for student health, emphasized at the press conference that, while the point of origin is still unknown, the virus is airborne and appropriate measures must be taken. Norovirus can continue to spread for up to three days even after people first exhibit symptoms.
“We were dealing with the supposition that this was food-borne; now we know that that may be the case, but we also know that it is highly contagious,” Welsh said.
“With much input from D.C. Health, we have decided the campus will maintain normal operations,” Olson said at an open forum he held with Joseph Timpone, an associate professor in the division of infectious diseases at the Medical Center, in Sellinger Lounge yesterday after the press conference.
University President John J. DeGioia said that a team of more than 30 professionals will report directly to him to coordinate the university’s response to the outbreak.
Since late yesterday morning, university maintenance crews and newly contracted outside groups have been cleaning residence hall common rooms and bathrooms, as well as buildings frequented by many students, including the Leavey Center, Yates Field House and McDonough Arena. Specific attention is being paid to doorknobs, handrails and restrooms, as the virus is transmitted through feces and vomit. Olson said that students who are ill may request that their room also be cleaned.
Olson said in an e-mail last night that, in recognition of the need to keep bedding and other soiled items clean, $6 have been added to the GOCard accounts of residential students, designated for use in the laundry rooms. These funds will be available through 11:59 p.m. on Sunday.
embers of the Office of Residence Life ordered large quantities of hand sanitizers, Powerade drinks and disinfectant wipes for residence halls, Olson said. Dining services will provide food items, including clear fluids, broth and Jell-O, for ill students.
The Office of the Provost has also implemented a temporary academic policy in which students will be considered excused for missing classes or assignments.
Olson cited several other measures the university is taking, including sending a text message alert to all enrolled participants in the emergency alert system and an e-mail to parents informing them of the situation, and the establishment of two call lines: 1-800-208-5167 for general issues and 1-202-444-3895 for families who have an ill student at Georgetown.
Georgetown’s norovirus outbreak is not the first among universities and similarly close-quartered living areas, according to Timpone and Vigilance. “In my experience, there have been a couple of instances of this sort of outbreak on a college campus,” Vigilance said.
Due to its highly contagious nature, norovirus often follows an unpredictable course, and thus it is hard to project how long it will take to subside, Timpone said.
“There could be another peak due a secondary infection,” he said. “It’s hard to say.”
Timpone also said that there is a very low chance for someone who has already had the virus to become infected again and noted that 50 to 90 percent of adults have had norovirus at some point in their life.
The best way to prevent the spread of norovirus is washing your hands and keeping common areas clean, he said.