On the night of Tuesday Nov. 27, Chelsea Mingrone ‘14 felt stomach pains shortly before 9 p.m. She also felt sick, so she went home.

She suffered from nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration.

Other students encountered the same problems, some earlier, some later, but what happened in the end was the same: They all had the norovirus.

By Wednesday afternoon, Fairfield Department of Health officials arrived on campus to investigate increasing reports of students experiencing similar symptoms.

The health department confirmed on Thursday that the sickness was viral gastroenteritis, more commonly referred to as the norovirus, according to health center Director Julia Duffy. Duffy said that within the last week approximately 100 students were affected by the norovirus.

“We’ve seen about 50 students [in the health center] and we’ve heard on the phone [from] about 50 students,” she said. Of these students, approximately 6 were transported to the hospital due to dehydration.

Norovirus, according to website of the Center for Disease Control, “causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed … This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up.”

According to Aryanne Pereira ‘13, “I could tell it was a stomach virus because I felt the same symptoms from last year’s stomach virus that was around December or so.”

Assistant Vice President Jim Fitzpatrick said that initial discussions on Wednesday afternoon between administrators and public safety indicated that food from campus dining facilities was a potential source of the sickness.

“I believe four of the seven [initially affected students], there seemed to be a common thread of chicken,” said Fitzpatrick.

“The fire department, in consultation with Tom Pellegrino … and myself made the recommendation that the chicken be pulled from the dining hall. Dr. Pellegrino accepted their recommendation and asked that I contact Sodexo and pull the chicken,” he continued.

Vice President of Student Affairs Tom Pellegrino said of his decision on Wednesday: “I had no confirmation in terms of anything in terms of what is it, viral versus bacterial.

“I just made a gut instinct call,” he continued. “I didn’t want anyone eating chicken at that particular point in time until we could find out more … It’s kind of when you’re going through your kitchen and you think that something might be expired and somebody isn’t feeling well. You throw it out.”

According to Fitzpatrick, the town health department arrived soon after because of a call they had received from the fire department concerning students being transported to the hospital.

“From the information the town had, and since all of the students affected were from all different sectors … they began to suspect that it was not a case of food being the main source of the stomach problems, but it could be a virus,” he said. This was confirmed by the health department on Thursday afternoon according to Fitzpatrick, Pellegrino and Duffy.

“This really wasn’t food poisoning the ways people think of it,” said Duffy. “In this particular situation, there’s been no documentation that any contaminated food was introduced into the cafeteria that initiated the outbreak.”

So how did it start? Sands Cleary, director of the Fairfield Public Health Department, described the norovirus as a “cruise ship type of virus.”

“Somebody was sick and it spread through the community of Fairfield University just like it would spread through a community on a cruise ship very quickly,” he said. “It can pass person to person, it can pass on surfaces and doors, It can pass through food, so it can spread very quickly through all those means.”

According to Pellegrino, the ways in which the illness spread as described by Duffy “were the reason to we immediately instituted cleaning procedures even before we knew whether it was viral or bacterial.”

Cleary described these procedures: “The facilities had increased the cleaning of high contact surfaces throughout, particularly in the food service areas, so anything like door handles, door knobs, bathroom fixtures, as well as in the dormitories.”

He continued: “In addition, they had a specialized cleaning team that if kids got sick, they could call Public Safety and have a cleaning team dispatched to a bathroom.”

In addition to heightened cleaning procedures, the university acted on off-campus recommendations.

Fitzpatrick said that when the health department confirmed the norovirus outbreak on Thursday, they suggested that Sodexo directly serve students rather than allow self-serve. The suggestion was followed.

Cleary explained the logic behind this decision: “Some of the interviews done indicated that those students that were sick were still going to the dining facilities while they were sick … one of the ways norovirus can spread, one is just being in proximity with lots of people, but also if they’re handling the same handles and ladles and tongs and things that other students are handling.”

Within 48 hours of implementing these procedures, cases of the norovirus started to decline. “Within one to two days we started seeing the number of cases dramatically decrease,” said Cleary. “So most of those controls are still in place and so we’re just hoping they remain effective.”

Though heightened cleaning procedures have been maintained, the self-serve option was returned to the Barone cafeteria by Monday morning due to a significant decrease in cases, according to Pellegrino.

In addition to measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus, the Office of Residence Life also offered care packages for sick students to pick up on Nov. 30. Packages consisted of “ginger ale, water, saltine crackers and Gatorade,” according to Director of Residence Life Ophelia Rowe-Allen. She explained that approximately 20 students picked up care packages from Residence Life that day, with RAs handing out an additional 60 packages to students in their dormitories.
In terms of the exact origin of the virus, sources agreed it would be nearly impossible to deduce. However, in collaboration with the town and state health departments, a survey was sent out to the campus community via email on Nov. 30. Questions focused on specific symptoms as well as the food eaten during that time period.

“There really was no question if it was norovirus,” said Pellegrino, “but a survey like this is basically geared to answer or help understand two questions: the scope of the problem, and also causation, where did it potentially start.”

Fitzpatrick said: “Since it’s a norovirus, we will never know who patient one was.”

Pellegrino echoed: “We may never know what the cause was … Everything is being considered right now. I’ve heard a number of different theories … but I think the best way to go about it what the state and town are recommending.”

Students can take the survey by visiting https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/6VWXRSR

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