Health scare hits campus



Jessica May

A common form of gastroenteritis known as the “norovirus” or “norwalk-like virus” has infected over 100 members of Villanova’s community throughout the past week, resulting in an overwhelming number of student absences and hospital visits.

With symptoms that include vomiting, stomach pain, dehydration and even spells of unconsciousness, this disease has been especially prevalent among students living in the close quarters of residence halls.

In these close conditions, students have a difficult time avoiding the contagiousness of the disease.

Kaitlin Ryan, captain of Villanova EMS, reported that while the number of students calling for help has dwindled, it can be hard to tell exactly how many people have been infected.

“The worst night was when we had 18 calls, and 15 of those were virus-related,” Ryan said. “We had to ask Radnor [Fire Company] to help us transfer people to the hospital.”

According to Ryan, the peak of the calls occurred on Jan. 22. These calls were made mostly by members of the freshman and sophomore classes.

However, she said she has noticed that the virus has begun to spread to other parts of campus, such as West Campus residence halls.

“The number of calls has certainly dwindled,” Ryan said. “We are now dealing with about two calls a night.”

According to a local ABC Channel 6 Action News report, most of the 100-plus students that are believed to have been infected have been able to treat this virus on their own.

However, without visiting the Student Health Center or local medical facilities, the exact number of students affected by the norovirus is uncertain.

“I really can’t give a specific number of people that have been affected,” Ryan said. ” A lot of people don’t go to seek help, so it’s difficult to tell how many have been infected with the virus.”

Another major problem that students have faced involves the fact that nobody has been sure as to what prevention measures should be taken in order to stop the spread of the disease because no information was made readily available to the student body until a week after the outbreaks began.

Dr. Mary McGonigle, director of the Student Health Center, e-mailed the Villanova community yesterday, summarizing the virus’ impact and ways to prevent it.

However, students at Rosemont College received an e-mail from Michelle Broughton, Rosemont’s director of Residence Life, dated Jan. 24, informing them of the presence of a virus on Villanova’s campus and informing them of preventative measures.

Rosemont administration also posted flyers throughout the dormitories, notifying students of proper preventative methods, according to Amy Zambrano, a junior at Rosemont.

However, according to Vice President of Student Life Rev. John Stack, O.S.A., this outbreak is not uncommon on college campuses this time of year.

“It didn’t approximate something that was unusual from other years,” Stack said, explaining why a message wasn’t immediately sent out to the student body.

He went on to explain that similar situations have occurred in the past, but this illness has more obvious symptoms, which is why it has garnered more attention from the student body.

Another issue affecting the control of the virus concerns the fact that Facilities Management has fewer staff members working on the weekends, so vomit and other bodily fluids built up in resident hall bathrooms and hallways.

Unfortunately, exposure to vomit is one of the easiest ways to contract the disease.

According to Pennsylvania State Epidemiologist Dr. Veronica Urdanetta, there are certain procedures that must be carried out as soon as an outbreak such as this occurs.

“With any oubreak, our first duty is to make a diagnosis,” Urdanetta said. “We then start asking questions and identify all the patients related to the outbreaks and get their information. We then analyze the data received and make recommendations based on that.”

In addition to these procedures, Urdanetta noted that when extreme cases of outbreaks arise, there is always a chance that strict control measures will have to be implemented.

“If we have a situation in which the number of cases continues to increase, we will ask that place to institute control measures,” Urdanetta said. “In any of our prevention recommendations we are trying to prevent the spread of the disease and keep it from spreading from one place to another.”

Rumors have been circulating among the student body that the University would have to close operations if a certain number of students contracted the illness.

However, this is not the case.

“There’s no policy about that,” Stack said. “We would take our cue from the state board of health or the CDC, and this did not even merit anything close to [closing school].”

Urdanetta also pointed out the need for each situation to be analyzed thoroughly before a decision to shut down an instutition can be made.

“We do have a power to close facilities if we feel there is a public health threat,” Urdanetta said. “It really has to do with how the disease is moving.”

She also echoed Stack in his claim that this “winter vomiting virus” is very common for this time of year, so the number of people stricken with the disease is really difficult to finalize.

“We cannot function on numbers because numbers can go up and down,” Urdanetta said. “Some students don’t report. It is really up to our investigation.”

Stack pointed out that the state board of health fully supported Villanova’s response to the outbreak, believing that the University acted accordingly and no further action was merited at the time.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site, people who are infected with the norovirus are contagious from the moment they feel ill to up to three days after recovery. In severe cases, the period of contagiousness can last up to two weeks.

While most symptoms can be controlled without a hospital visit, people can sometimes be unable to drink enough liquids to replace the fluids lost due to vomiting.

These persons therefore become dehydrated, which requires treatment in a medical facility, according the CDC’s Web site.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health’s Web site, the virus can survive on surfaces for three to four weeks at room temperature and cannot be killed by common disinfectants.

Ready-to-eat foods that require handling but no subsequent cooking, such as salads and deli sandwiches; exposure to contaminated surfaces or objects; and direct contact with someone with the illness can also pose a great risk of disease spread, according to a June 2001 report by the CDC.

Some common preventative steps include frequent hand washing, thorough cleaning of all foods and surfaces with alcohol and frequent washing of all linens and clothing exposed to the virus.

Although the number of cases is dwindling, the Student Health Center advises that students continue to be aware of exposure to this virus.

Stephen Buszka and Thomas Celona contributed additional reporting to this article.