Ursinus College recently experienced an outbreak of norovirus that affected over 200 students, faculty and staff.
While Slippery Rock University’s campus remains unaffected, it is clear that many misconceptions exist concerning the nature, cause and transmission of norovirus.
Commonly known as stomach flu or food poisoning, norovirus causes symptoms of severe diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Kristina Benkeser, director of Student Health Services, said that other less common symptoms may include fever and stomach pain, which is the reason for norovirus to be erroneously referred to as stomach flu.
“It’s a complete misnomer,” she said. “There’s no such thing. It has nothing to do with the influenza virus whatsoever.”
According to the CDC, the flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused influenza viruses, while norovirus is a highly contagious virus that can be transmitted from person to person through contaminated food or water and by touching contaminated surfaces.
Benkeser said that the prevention of norovirus outbreaks can be summed up in three words: Wash your hands.
“That breaks the chain of norovirus at just about every level,” she said. “The most common way to get it is fecal to oral route. Somebody who has norovirus does not wash their hands after going to the bathroom and they touch something that you then touch.”
Norovirus travels quickly as it takes a very small quantity of particles to infect a person.
“The good news is that hand washing and environmental cleanliness do keep outbreaks of norovirus at bay,” Benkeser said.
In the event of an outbreak, the first step is often to rule out or rule in communal dining areas by closing temporarily for cleaning and inspection.
Joe Balaban, resident director for AVI Food Systems, said that dining halls are the first place to be contained only because of the high volume of people passing through.
“A lot of times, oddly enough, the dining hall isn’t ground zero,” Balaban said. “A lot of times, it works its way in from other locations. When you’ve got 1700 students rolling in here at lunch every day, plus staff and everyone else, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Another reason for the dining hall to be decontaminated first is so that food distribution can continue as soon as possible. In the recent incident at Ursinus, Wismer Dining Hall was given a clean bill of health and was closed for two meal periods.
“It could’ve been coming from any off campus eating establishment,” Benkeser said. “It could’ve come from a big party.”
The other nickname for the norovirus, food poisoning, often leads to finger pointing at food preparation staff, although food contamination is one of several ways the virus can be transmitted.
“Norovirus is not necessarily food poisoning,” Balaban said. “It’s a very common misperception in all honesty. With most food-borne illnesses, you don’t even start to see any ramifications from it until between 12 and 18 hours. It takes a little while to work through the system.”
Balaban said that there is a series of plans and contingency plans to be put into action in the event of an outbreak.
“All units are going to be shut down, steam cleaned and sanitized,” he said. “We would bring food in from our main commissary to get people fed.”
Balaban described the assessment plan of interviewing infected students about their activities in the last 48 hours in an attempt to trace the source of the infection. Also under rigorous scrutiny would be the supply line for the food all the way back to the vendors.
Meanwhile, the Health Center would be assisting the Butler County Department of Health with gathering information as well as distributing sports drinks, bottled water and sanitary wipes.
“There isn’t a cure,” Benkeser said. “The treatment is what we call supportive care – fluids, rest. The biggest danger is becoming dehydrated.”
Benkeser said that recovery involves letting the infection run its course.
“Your body gets rid of the virus by pooping it out,” she said. “I don’t know any other way to put it.”