by Will Kaback ’20, Editor-in-Chief
Just as the first signs of spring were beginning to draw the campus out of hibernation, a debilitating norovirus outbreak has emerged with a vengeance and affected nearly all aspects of daily life on the Hill.
The first official indication of a potential health issue on campus came on Monday, April 23, when Associate Dean of Students for Health and Safety Jeff Landry emailed the community about reports of “an increased number of students [experiencing] intestinal sickness.” Landry has since sent out multiple follow-up messages with updates on the outbreak and the Administration’s response.
At press time, Landry said that the College was aware of 54 cases of student illness related to norovirus, but that the actual number is believed to be higher, as “many students who have symptoms are following the hygiene guidance that I posted and not calling the Health Center.”
Initially, many students speculated that there was a connection between the increased prevalence of intestinal illness on campus and the multi-state E. coli outbreak linked to Romaine lettuce reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on April 10. According to that report, there are currently 84 recorded cases of E. coli between 19 states, with the source of the outbreak likely stemming from the Yuma, Arizona growing region.
Fears of an E. coli outbreak, however, were quickly quelled by Landry’s email, as he stated: “The College’s food service provider had not purchased any of the lettuce involved in the recall.” Still, Landry said that the food service provider, Bon Appétit, had “stopped serving Romaine and switched to iceberg lettuce last week.”
On Monday, the College sent samples to its lab provider to test for a potentially contagious virus. Then, on Tuesday, Landry emailed the community again with the news that the lab tests had come back positive for norovirus.
Citing the CDC’s website, Landy explained that, “‘Norovirus is a very contagious virus that can infect anyone. You can get it from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed. This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up.’”
He added: “The virus can spread easily. It can cause severe pain and discomfort, but most people recover in a few days. You should not attend class while you are sick and for at least two days after experiencing your last symptom.”
Having identified the presence of norovirus, the College immediately notified the community and enacted a mitigation plan. On Wednesday morning, Facilities Management personnel were tasked with cleaning and disinfecting all public and private bathrooms, common spaces, and, in some cases, individual rooms, in every residence hall on campus.
Additionally, all seven campus dining spaces — Commons Dining Hall, McEwen Dining Hall, Howard Diner, The Little Pub, Opus 1, Opus 2, and Euphoria Smoothies — were closed at various points throughout the day so a thorough cleaning and disinfection of non-porous contact surfaces and touch points could be conducted using Oxivir wipes and a bleach-based solution.
Even after these dining spaces reopened, they offered only basic food options. Commons Dining Hall, for example, did not provide its usual hot food entrée, salad bar, pizza station, pasta station, or sandwich station, instead placing tin foil-wrapped hot food and saran-wrapped salad dishes throughout the dining area for students to take.
Other public spaces on campus, such as the Burke Library, Blood Fitness Center, and other academic buildings, were also closed for periods during the day so cleaning operations could proceed efficiently.
Reuben Haag, the General Manager of Bon Appétit at Hamilton, reiterated the food service company’s comittment to proper health and safety practices, saying: “We take food safety very, very seriously at Bon Appétit, and the trust placed in us by the Hamilton community is critically important to us. All of our associates receive ongoing food safety training, and we have many corporate food-safety systems and procedures in place.”
He continued: “Our purchasing team has been aware for several weeks of the reports of illnesses around the U.S. that were linked to Romaine lettuce. Originally chopped and bagged Romaine was implicated. Later, [it] expanded to all Romaine from Yuma, AZ. We have a companywide system that alerts all of us if we may have purchased any items linked to food safety concerns, and they are pulled and destroyed. Hamilton did not purchase any Romaine from Arizona. For the past three weeks, we have used only Romaine from California, and last week out of an abundance of caution we stopped using Romaine entirely, switching to iceberg lettuce.”
Haag added that when Bon Appétit became aware of reports of student illness, they “immediately began working with the university and our corporate food safety team to investigate [these reports].”
Elizabeth Groubert ’21, who leads Student Assembly’s Food Committee, added that the norovirus outbreak has also affected the Clinton area at-large. “Many locals in the Clinton and New Hartford area are sick as well, so the norovirus is not unique to Hamilton College,” she said.
Groubert argued that Bon Appétit should not be assigned blame for any aspect of the outbreak, saying, “There has been no evidence that the norovirus is linked to food consumption on campus.”
She added: “Some students speculate that the virus was contracted at Americares, an off-campus gala held at a barn.” Currently, there is no evidence that either Bon Appétit or the Americares Gala had any role in the outbreak. College officials say the investigation into the source of the virus is ongoing.
The College, for its part, has kept the community updated with regards to the outbreak and the corrective measures it is taking. On Wednesday, Hamilton’s website published an article titled,“Norovirus Confirmed on Campus”, in which it stated: “Hamilton has confirmed the presence of norovirus on campus and has implemented a plan to address it. More than two dozen students have become sick with symptoms consistent with the virus.”
They also advised that, “students should not attend class while exhibiting any symptoms for the virus and for two days after the last symptom is present. Employees who exhibit symptoms should not report to work. The CDC recommends people wash their hands frequently with warm soapy water and remain hydrated to help prevent transmission.”
An additional press release sent out at 4:43 PM on Wednesday reiterated the mitigation plan outlined by Landry and advised that the cleaning and disinfection process would continue through Wednesday night and into Thursday morning, with efforts being “modified or increased as necessary.”
Hamilton is not the only college community currently being affected by a norovirus outbreak. According to the Associated Press, Western Connecticut State University, located in Danbury, CT, closed school on April 23 to disinfect the campus after about 100 students fell ill due to norovirus. The University, which has an undergraduate population numbering approximately 5,700, has two campuses, both of which were closed on Monday.
Similar to Hamilton, Western Connecticut school officials stated that the “source of the norovirus outbreak wasn’t immediately clear.”
Despite concerns over the widespread nature of the virus, the outbreak has also prompted many acts of care and support around campus.
Shaquelle Levy ’20, a residential advisor for Bundy West Residence Hall, was one of many RAs who sent out a list of available tips and resources for combatting the virus, including delivering box meals to students who are unable to leave their rooms.
In the Sadove Student Center, students could be seen purchasing chicken noodle soup and electrolyte-based drinks from the campus bookstore for their sick friends and classmates.