Health Department says virus caused illnesses

Authorities have not ruled out food-borne, person-to-person spreading

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Observatory Hill Dining Hall contains the O’Hill Forum.

The Virginia Department of Health has determined a norovirus to be the cause of the recent bout of gastrointestinal illness among University students. It is still unknown, however, whether the source of the outbreak is food-borne or from person-to-person contact.

Student Health Director Chris Holstege sent a statement to first-year students on Nov. 16, alerting them that 15 students had reported to the U.Va. Emergency Department.

As rumors circulated that the illnesses were linked food served in University dining halls, the health department launched an investigation into the outbreak.

"After a very thorough investigation, the recent virus outbreak has been conclusively confirmed to be norovirus without any link to foodservice or U.Va. Dining," Aramark Marketing Manager Nicole Jackson said in an email.

Elizabeth Beasley, a spokesperson for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, said the investigation into the precise cause is ongoing, and they are continuing to monitor students for symptoms.

“[The Virginia Department of Health is] actively investigating and conducting surveillance for more cases in partnership with the University,” Beasley said in an email. “What the [department] is most concerned about now is stopping further transmissions of the virus. … We are not aware of any other [outbreaks] in our health district, but there are [norovirus] outbreaks under investigation in other areas across the state.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, norovirus infections cause gastroenteritis, which the is inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Its symptoms include stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea which are consistent with infected University students’ symptoms.

University students have responded to the allegations of food poisoning, and have expressed mixed feelings about its validity.

Many students have speculated the source of the illness is improperly handled food from the dining halls, particularly Observatory Hill. Second-year College student Austin Walker said he does not think differently about the dining halls after hearing rumors about the source of the outbreak.

“I think there’s a stereotype that O-Hill especially is not very high quality food, and I think that’s why people were pointing fingers at it,” Walker said. “I think it’s still a good place to eat and people are still going to eat there.”

However, Walker was “not surprised” to hear the allegations.

“I think that whenever you eat mass-produced food there’s more risk for there to be contamination,” Walker said. “I don’t think that means you shouldn’t eat it. I just think that means you have to recognize the risk.”

First-year Engineering student Miles Braxton said the rumors were “a little comical.” He was not sure where he thinks the illness originated, but said he does not believe dining halls are to blame.

“Just to joke about it, [students] might have directed it towards O-Hill or some of the dining halls here at U.Va.,” Braxton said.

Braxton said he ate at O-Hill the evening when many students were hospitalized and the next day, but did not get sick.

Third-year College student Amy Smith said the number of people who come in contact with food in a dining hall situation could increase the likelihood of contamination. Any time you eat at a buffet, “you’re taking a big risk for germs,” she said.

Waker said he generally sees staff members taking precautions such as washing their hands and wearing gloves. Braxton agreed.

“I do think the sanitation is good,” Walker said. “I think they keep the dining halls very clean.”

Smith acknowledged the attempt to keep the dining halls clean, but was skeptical of how much cleaning can actually be done during the day.

While norovirus symptoms are usually brief and typically no serious consequences occur, students should medical treatment if the condition does not resolve itself within a few days, Holstege said.

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