On Wednesday, Sept. 11, students received an email from the Dean of Students Office, notifying them that the Madison County Health Department suspected a number of UAH students had contracted the Norovirus.
The email stated that “The Madison County Health Department confirmed today that students at The University of Alabama in Huntsville are suspected to have contracted the Norovirus.” the Norovirus, sometimes called the stomach flu, has been cited by the CDC as the leading cause of food poisoning at 58% of cases related to the gastrointestinal disease. Campus health authorities believe “the first possible evidence of the gastrointestinal virus appeared on Tuesday when 35 students became sick and were treated at the Student Health Center”.. “Another 14 students were treated today. However, that number has dwindled quickly since this morning, according to UAH health care professionals.” The email went on to inform students of UAH administration’s “steps to isolate students with the virus after they became sick, and aggressive steps are being taken by UAH and the Health Department to identify common elements among the stricken students on campus to mitigate any additional cases.”
This email was followed by another on Friday the 13th, requesting recipients fill out a survey, to help the university “gain a more comprehensive understanding of how the illness may have been introduced and spread through the community.” The survey, which was entirely voluntary, was part of the immediate steps referenced above. It asked a variety of questions, with a focus on which campus eateries and events the interviewee had been to in the days before the first case.
UAH’s food services were cleared by the Madison County Health Department on Thursday the 12th, as confirmed in an interview with UAH’s Chief of Staff and Director of Community Relations, Ray Garner. Garner stated in an email, “The investigation to search for common elements among the students that contracted the virus continues. The one thing that is common to the Norovirus, whether it is on the UAH campus or on a cruise ship, the virus is particularly noteworthy among areas of large crowds because it spreads quickly because it is very contagious. For that reason, we may never find a single source.”
Other aggressive actions taken include deep bleach cleaning common areas such as restrooms, where the virus could otherwise linger.
Garner believes the university took the appropriate steps, reporting that the Health Department was contacted as soon as it became clear there was a health risk: “There’s protocols we follow from the Alabama Department of Public Health, as well as the Madison County Health Department. So once you get to a point to where there’s five individuals … the protocol calls for us to contact the health department. All those things were set in motion really quickly, and really we probably averted a chance that more students would have been infected.”
As a final dose of good news, Garner confirmed what was suggested in the initial email on Wednesday, “The number of students being treated has been dropping. 35 students were treated on Tuesday, 14 on Wednesday, 9 on Thursday and 2 on Friday. The university continues to monitor activity to mitigate any additional case.” Based on those numbers, the outbreak is likely behind us.
Even so, it is important to remain cautious. As Wednesday’s email initially advised, students should stay vigilant in efforts to remain healthy. They should wash their hands regularly, avoid eating after each other, and seek professional medical advice from the Student Health Center if they believe they have fallen ill.