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ISSUE 120 VOL 8 PUBLISHED 11/17/2006

Food-borne virus worries

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor

Friday, November 17, 2006

Dean of Students Greg Kneser alerted the St. Olaf community of a possible norovirus scare Thursday evening after approximately 10 students became ill with severe internal distress in the early afternoon. While the source of the virus is not, and may not ever be, determined, Kneser and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) officials are confident that Bon Appétit was not the source of the virus.

Health officials suspect that norovirus caused the illnesses on campus. It is a common food-borne virus that produces symptoms similar to the stomach flu or food poisoning.

"We may never know, but based on the rapid onset and the symptoms, the [Minnesota] Department of Health came to a decision pretty quickly," Kneser said.

The MDH contacted students Thursday evening to try to determine what food the sick students ate, as well as where that food came from. Most of the students who came down with the illness attended a celebratory lunch gathering catered by an off-campus vendor and hosted by the College Democrats last Tuesday afternoon in Mellby lounge. It is not known if the food served at the event was infected with the virus, or if someone in contact with the food had the virus and passed it to students via the food. Other students who ate at that same vendor that same afternoon but did not attend the gathering were also sick.

On Thursday afternoon, Pam Tietz, nurse practitioner and interim director of Health Services, informed Kneser of an alarming number of students complaining of severe stomach problems.

"Of particular interest in this scenario was the timing of the events," Tietz said. "Three to four students presented with rapid onset of abrupt vomiting and diarrhea at exactly the same time."

Following protocol, Kneser contacted Bon Appétit, which contacted a food-borne illness hotline and the MDH, which advised Bon Appétit to remove all uncooked food from Stav Hall. By 5:30 p.m., all raw food had been removed and the Pause had shut its doors for the evening.

Because Bon Appétit serves approximately 2,200 students at each meal, totaling approximately 30,000 meals each week, removing all food that may have come into contact with the virus was a necessary precautionary measure.

"I wanted to make sure we kept the number as low as possible," General Manager of Bon Appétit Katie McKenna said, explaining the decision to throw out all food that may have come into contact with the virus at some point.

Even though all Bon Appétit staff has been trained to handle food safely, every staff member and student worker reviewed proper hand washing techniques and safe food-handling instructions before starting their shift.

Throughout the day on Friday, foods were gradually brought back in, and by Friday evening things were nearly back to normal.

On Friday, which was both Veteran's Day and a national holiday, health officials spent time on campus speaking with ill students and investigating sources of the scare.

"These people were working on a vacation day," Kneser said in regards to the many government officials who spent their day off at St. Olaf.

While students were confused at first, word spread quickly and most of the community understood why measures were being taken and agreed with the decision.

"I received no complaints and a number of compliments [from students]," Kneser said about the way the norovirus scare was handled.

Kneser has only positive things to say about Bon Appétit and Pause management, as well as MDH.

"I can't say enough about their diligence," Kneser said, calling all efforts involved "phenomenal."

Tietz and McKenna agreed.

"I am very impressed with the swift response from campus officials, Bon Appétit staff and management and the Minnesota Department of Health," Tietz said. "I have been working in various positions in public service for 17 years and this has been the most responsive and cooperative situation I have been involved with to prevent the spread of disease in a community."

McKenna stressed that she and all Bon Appétit staff do all they can every day to keep the food service at St. Olaf safe.

"Our biggest fear was that we would lose trust," she said.

At print time, it appears that the virus has not spread past the initial students infected.

Because norovirus is a fecal-oral virus, Tietz emphasized proper hand washing techniques to help avoid any additional infections. "The best way to prevent the spread of norovirus is to wash hands after using restrooms and before handling or eating any food," Tietz said. "Wash hands before preparing food for yourself and others."

Any students who come down with norovirus symptoms are urged to see Health Services.

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