Vicious Virus: Overnight norovirus outbreak sickens dozens

By Rachel Stengel and Katie Zeck

Late Wednesday night into early Thursday morning, approximately 40 Rider  students on the Lawrenceville campus were seen by Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) or transported to the local hospitals because they showed symptoms of gastrointestinal illness, according to a response compiled by Dean of Students Anthony Campbell; Debbie Stasolla, associate vice president for Planning and Dan Higgins, executive director of University Communications.

The rampant illness is thought to be caused by a strain of the norovirus, which is marked by symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramping.

Ambulances and police cars from Lawrence Township and Princeton lined the sidewalks in front of Switlik Hall early Thursday morning. The emergency personnel transported and cared for a total of 58 students throughout the 24-hour period.

As of Thursday night, 58 students in total have been affected by a norovirus infection on both campuses.

“Given the number of students who were exhibiting symptoms late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning within a very short period of time, we knew rather quickly that we were dealing with more than just a series of isolated incidents,” the University’s response said.

The first notice of an outbreak came from the Lawrence Township police, who received a call from a parent asking for an ambulance for her daughter who exhibited gastrointestinal symptoms. Public Safety received a number of calls within a short time span of students presenting similar symptoms.

Sickened students were transported to area hospitals because of the high number of incidents and the time of day, according to the response from Campbell, Stasolla and Higgins.

As of Thursday, the number of cases had dropped and all but one student were treated and returned to campus.

“There has been a significant decrease since Wednesday night in the number of reported cases of students exhibiting symptoms of a norovirus infection,” the response said. “Transports to area hospitals are also significantly reduced.”

The fast-spreading norovirus left some students ill with confusion. Freshman Mariah Major was one of the infected students who waited in the lobby of Switlik Hall for treatment by EMTs. She did not know what illness she had acquired at the time and was transported to a local hospital.

Senior Daniel A. Gartenberg, a student infected by the norovirus was also unsure of the cause of his illness.

“On the second floor of Switlik at least three of us have been vomiting and have come down with what is most likely a case of food poisoning,” he said. Currently my symptoms are under control.”

Norovirus is typically not a serious illness, as most people get better within one to two days, but it is very contagious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A University Communications email that was sent to students said individuals contract norovirus through infected vomit and stool. One must come in contact with it through eating or drinking contaminated liquids, touching a surface with the virus then touching one’s mouth or having direct contact with an infected individual. As precautionary measures, the University urged students to frequently wash their hands and refrain from sharing drinks, food or utensils.

Resident Advisors (RAs) were instructed to check on every resident in their building during the early hours of Thursday morning.

“We were told to go door-to-door to check and make sure everyone was okay,” said Poyda RA Pat Risi. “A kid on my floor was vomiting and said he had stomach pains as well as three other residents in Poyda. It was pretty crazy.”

News vans from media stations including CNN, ABC and Fox News came to campus during the day on Thursday to cover the norovirus outbreak that plagued campus.

Some students attributed the cause of the outbreak to food services because the Bronc Diner closed two hours early on Wednesday night around the same time as the illness hit full force. Campbell, Stasolla and Higgins deny that food was the source.

“As best as we are able to ascertain, this outbreak is not connected to food services,” the response said. “The diner was closed last night as a precautionary measure while we were trying to assess the situation and determine the cause of students’ symptoms.”

According to Chief of Police Daniel Posluszny, Lawrence Township police is taking steps to alert the residents of Lawrence Township and neighboring areas of the spreading virus.

“Right now we haven’t had any other reports about it in the community,” he said. “So far it’s been an isolated incident. If we get any more reports we will act accordingly. Right now we are just getting the information out to everybody that there is an outbreak at Rider.”

Princeton University also experienced an outbreak of the norovirus. According to Princeton University spokesperson Martin Mbugua, since Jan. 29 about 100 cases of the norovirus have been found on Princeton’s campus.

“We’ve seen more than the usual number of students experiencing symptoms of gastroenteritis for this time of the year,” he said.

Students at Rider unaffected by the virus were uneasy about what exactly was going on as news van after news van packed the roads that run through campus.

“I was definitely nervous once I woke up and found out what was going on,” said sophomore Lindsey Hegenauer. “I’m glad the University is stepping up with sanitizing everything. I live in a suite and they came in to clean our bathroom that we normally clean ourselves.”

At Princeton, panic over the virus was not as prevalent and most students were treated at the McCosh Health Center, Mbugua said.

Matt Haake, Princeton University freshman was not as concerned as Rider students have been regarding the recent outbreak.

“They advised us to be super clean and careful with everything, but honestly if it weren’t for the emails [they sent out], I wouldn’t even know it was going around,” he said.

The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) has not had any reported cases of students infected with the norovirus, but precautions are still being taken, according to TCNJ’s Executive Direction of College Relations, Stacy Schuster.

“We sent out an email to the campus community advising preventative methods,” she said. “Our student health services has been in contact with the health service departments from Princeton and Rider.”

TCNJ Sophomore Thomas Crockford said that even though TCNJ has not experienced any cases, students are being more cautious.

“Nothing too bad has happened here yet; everyone’s just being a little more careful about using hand sanitizer,” he said. “Makes sense though since we’re so close. No one wants to get sick like that, even if it’s only for a day or two.”

Throughout the day on Thursday many Rider students hesitated going to classes or skipped altogether in fear they would contract the virus while in contact with other people. Others were clearly angry that classes remained in session, claiming it posed as a health risk for themselves and their classmates.

“Classes should have been cancelled,” said sophomore Dan Krayton. “Not only is the virus still transmittable, but the school was late in notifying students, putting the entire student body at risk. Out of the safety of their students, the administration should have cancelled class.”

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