Beginning of the Oregon State Outbreak

On April 6th, Oregon State University (OSU) reported an outbreak of a norovirus-like illness. At the time the University made the announcement, the virus had already apparently infected approximately 50-60 students on the Corvallis campus, officials said. At the time, however, “the etiology [had] not been identified,” according to Outbreak News Today.

A statement released by the University later that day, however, stated that the “gastroenteritis symptoms” reported by “a number of students living on campus” were now “confirmed to be norovirus.” Both Student Health Service (SHS) and Benton County Health Department (BCHD) were aware of the situation and taking steps to stem the spread of the virus:

“SHS and University Housing and Dining Services and other Oregon State departments are collaborating with BCHD to manage the spread of the illness. This includes standard public health deep-cleaning protocols for housing and dining facilities and food safety procedures.”

More specifically, different departments instituted various measures in an effort to contain the virus. Such measures included increased custodial services, with a focus on the residence halls, dining centers, Student Health Services, Valley Library, Dixon Recreation and the Memorial Union. Deep cleaning of all commonly touched surfaces (e.g. doorknobs, elevator buttons, entryways, tables) was underway.

As of that date, BCHD believed that the source of the infections was not any specific food source or location. “It’s not untypical after spring break, when students are on the road traveling, for this to come back from anywhere,” said Jenny Haubenreiser. She again stressed that the outbreak is not connected with any particular dorm, dining hall or other facility on campus, echoing an earlier statement by county health officials. “That we’ve been able to rule out,” she said.

At this point, somewhere between 80 and 100 students have contracted the virus, though the actual number is likely much higher, as officials urged sick students to stay home. “There’s just no way to get an accurate headcount,” Haubenreiser said.

County Health Department Involved From the Start

Officials from the Benton County Health Department began consulting with OSU health officials up to a week before the University’s first announcement, when students first started reporting symptoms of a norovirus-like illness. The public health officials believed that a number of individual transmission routes – none involving food – likely resulted in spreading the pathogen. Officials hypothesized that person-to-person contact or person-to-object-to-person transmission had spread the virus through shared living spaces, cell phones, utensils, cups and various other items.

Bill Emminger, director of Benton County Environmental Health Division, indicated that almost all of the students that contracted the virus live in dorms. Tiffany Eckert of Northwest Public Radio spoke with Emminger, who had the following to say about the virus:

“Oh my Gosh, it is very easy to transmit. Norovirus is very, very infectious so it only takes a very few particles to cause illness.”

Norovirus is one of the most easily transmittable pathogens, which is why outbreaks are commonly seen in contained or limited spaces such as cruise ships, schools, and prisons. The bacteria causes nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and high fever, and according to Eckert, in this case “health officials urge[d] anyone with these symptoms to see a doctor and avoid contact with others.”

It’s impossible to predict whether the outbreak will spread beyond the bounds of OSU and how long it will last.

“You’re asking the million-dollar question right there,” Emminger said. “A lot of times with norovirus, when it gets into the community it just keeps trudging along and spreading.” Officials now, however, believe they’ve reached a point where the virus is no longer rapidly spreading and that those in charge of fighting the outbreak have an upper hand on the virus.

Officials Optimisitc that Oregon State Outbreak Nearing End

On Saturday, University officials appeared to be optimistic that the outbreak was tapering off. Officials posted a link to a Corvallis Gazette-Times article posted on the official University website. The article by Bennett Hall, entitled “Norovirus cases waning at OSU, not spreading off campus,” states that the two-week long outbreak “‘appears to be tapering off and seems to have been contained to the campus itself,” citing health officials.

A total of 80-100 students contracted the virus before case numbers started their decline; however, the real number is difficult to ascertain because OSU officials have been urging those with norovirus-like symptoms to stay home for the duration of their sickness and three full days after symptoms abate. According to director of OSU Student Health Services Jenny Haubenreiser, the number of reported new cases has fallen off sharply since the end of last week. “It’s going to take at least a week or so before we know for certain, but it does appear to be on the decline,” she said. “We’re in a cautiously optimistic place.”

“The trick to this particular virus is just staying home for 72 hours after the last symptoms — which is hard, particularly with this weather,” Haubenreiser said. The reason officials are placing extra emphasis on the extended isolation period is due to the fact that infected people can remain contagious for several days after symptoms disappear.

Symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. The disease is rarely life-threatening and generally runs its course in two or three days, but it’s highly contagious and can be spread by person-to-person contact or contact with an infected object or surface.

Partial Victory Good Enough For Now

Emminger said he’s encouraged by the small number of new cases being reported. Like Haubenreiser, however, he’s not ready to declare victory just yet.

“On Monday morning we’re going to reassess and see where we are with our interventions, whether we need to continue them or we can go back to business as usual,” he said.

“We’re trying to move cautiously on it because it’s a tough bug to get rid of.”