A mystery stomach bug is running rampant through Ursinus College, a small, liberal arts college in Collegeville, Pennsylvania situated on 170 acres of wooded grounds. Nearly 200 students have reported becoming violently ill, and all evidence points to one commonality – the sickened students all ate in the on-campus dining hall.
Reports USA Today on Feb. 11: “Ursinus College reported at least 174 students are ill with an outbreak of a gastrointestinal ailment that causes prolonged bouts of vomiting. The illness first broke out among the students on Tuesday night.”
Numbers released on Feb. 15 show an additional 20 students have reported symptoms, bringing the total number to just under 200. Over ten percent of the student population is ill.
Ursinus currently has about 1,600 students. Of those that reported being sick, nearly two dozen have sought treatment at doctor offices and local urgent care centers. The dining hall at the campus was closed Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday’s classes were cancelled. Montgomery County Health Department (MCHD) officials are now on site.
Officials have not yet confirmed what is causing the outbreak, but MCHD investigators said the symptoms mirror those of the highly-contagious Norovirus. Students have reported consistent bouts of nausea, diarrhea and related dehydration.
“I encourage any students or staff experiencing symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain to be particularly careful about dehydration and to seek medical care,” commented Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, the Interim Medical Director of the Montgomery County Health Department.
According to CBS Philly, on-site doctor Paul Doghramji with the Ursinus College Health Services downplayed the seriousness of the sickness, calling the illness a “self-limited infection” that just needs to run its course in a 24-hour period. “What makes this more concerning and newsworthy is that so many have been afflicted so quickly,” he said.
The college posted an update to its website Friday morning, stating in part: “Since Tuesday afternoon, a total of 192 students have reported symptoms related to stomach illness to the college’s Wellness Center or Campus Safety Office. Many of these students have reported that they are feeling substantially better. Only a handful of faculty and staff have reported symptoms… The college’s dining hall, Wismer Hall, is now open for normal hours. Two county health inspectors reviewed the facility and gave it a ‘clean bill of health.’ Classes resume on Monday morning.”
Students have been tweeting about the illness. The hashtag #ursinusplague started trending on Twitter. Many linked photos of zombies wandering about.
People are dropping like flies. I am one of them. The Ursinus Plague is real. Run for the hills before it’s too late. – Rob @Dewbie_Brotha
It all happened so quick. One minute I was shopping in kop. The next feeling sick as a junkyard dog. It strikes fast and with no mercy. – Brian Neff @B_Neff14
“The best way to prevent the spread GI illness is to practice good hand-hygiene and to thoroughly clean and disinfect all surfaces in common areas,” said Dr. Arkoosh. Or, as one student tweeted: “If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the #UrsinusPlague, it’s that cafeteria food can NEVER be trusted.”
The Montgomery County Health Department has released its inspection report that officials performed on Feb. 10. The report details a dozen startling violations; five of them are listed as “risk violations.”
The report shows Ursinus College did not “demonstrate knowledge” of foodborne illness risk factors, nor did cafeteria management have a policy in place to deal with public health prevention of outbreaks. Employee hands were not properly washed and surfaces were not sanitized. The slicer, tabletop can opener, cutting boards, dishwasher and the food prep sink were all found unsanitary.
Some of the specifics that were observed and written into the report include:
- Employee drinking on the cooks line while working with an open cup. Stop immd. Explained proper eating and drinking procedures to the manager.
- Employee handling the trash can, then preparing foods. Stop immd. Explained proper hand washing methods to the manger. Pan was replaced.
- Employee rubbing eyes, then handling the cutting boards without washing hands. Stop immd. Explained proper procedures to the manager.
- Dead roach like insects under the sinks, dry storage areas and lights shield of the kitchen.
The report also details the fact inspectors found toxic, pest control substances mixed in with food: “Facility appears to have opened and unprotected pesticides under the front counter and behind several reach-in cooler units. At the time of the inspection, Chef Manager Craig Paulus stated that the pest control operator told him it was mouse bait. There is also a white powder mixed with the possible mouse bait. According to the pest control report, a roach powder was applied which could be the white powder in question. This powder is named Boractin. Facility must contact a professional cleaning service to clean the areas affected by the pesticides before reopening.”
Two additional inspections were done, one on Feb. 11 at approximately 9:00 a.m., and another at 3:00 p.m. that same day. Those reports cleared Ursinas College of the previous violations.