Student journalists struck by infection
Over 75 student journalists, hosts and speakers from across Canada fell seriously ill this past weekend from a sudden outbreak of norovirus, formerly known as Norwalk, during the Canadian University Press (CUP) national journalism conference held in Victoria, BC at the Harbour Hotel.
On the final night of the conference, more and more delegates began to feel sick.
“I’ve had [norovirus] before,” said Adam Kovac, current affairs editor of the Concordia University student newspaper, the Link. “I’m just living a charmed life.
[Anyway] we boarded the busses before we got to the event and we kept hearing that people were getting sick, but we didn’t really take it seriously. It was just about the time we got to the gala my stomach stared feeling iffy but I just chalked it up to being tired and a lack of sleep and I also had a small cold.
“But it was once we got on the bus going back,” he continued, “That I started feeling worse and worse and so did one other person from our paper. As soon as the bus pulled into the hotel I took off running, got to my room, locked the bathroom door and just started puking.”
Theories and temporary explanations of how the virus began went from delayed or extended hangovers, to food poisoning to an airborne virus or a sudden passing of the flu.
“Even as we were getting the reports of people getting sick on the busses, we were trying to figure it out ourselves,” said Emma Godmere, CUP’s national bureau chief. “Could this be a food thing? [But] we were getting reports of people sick from all different rooms on all different floors from all different papers; people who had not eaten that day, people who were vegetarian, people who had eaten all sorts of things so there didn’t seem to be any sorts of patterns emerging.”
However, once the numbers of people falling ill started increasing quickly and considerably, organizers and hotel staff became extremely concerned.
“The hotel administration and staff contacted BC ambulance service and our medical health advisor was contacted at about midnight,” explained Shannon Marshall, media liaison for Vancouver Island Public Health “She provided consult and advice to the BC paramedics on site to help treat the students with the recommendation that because they are young healthy adults, they would be best confined to their rooms so they could mitigate the spread of the illness to anybody else.”
According to Marshall, this outbreak has not specifically been confirmed as norovirus but she agrees that it is ‘noro-like.’ “Norovirus is a fairly common gastro-intestinal illness and while this hasn’t been confirmed as norovirus it is a noro-like illness so it was a gastro intestinal illness that spread very quickly,” she said.
As delegates continued to fall ill, Godmere and other CUP staff were running about the hotel, checking up those already sick and offering whatever advice they could.
“I was being told doctor’s orders through the hotel staff,” Godmere said.
“I think they were also legitimately concerned about the potential spread, so they encouraged us to stay in our rooms, get out of the lobby and then start letting people know via Twitter to get back into their rooms. We just had to assume that so many people had been exposed by that point.”
Several students were sent to the Royal Jubilee hospital where many were waiting for attention. Some lay on the floors unable to move, others were slumped in chairs unresponsive, unable to speak. Hospital staff did supply those in need with water and some form of an injection of Gravol, but no one was admitted past the waiting room or seen specifically by a doctor.
Within a day or two of being exposed to norovirus, a person may have an upset stomach and start vomiting which is often followed by cramping, chills, fever and diarrhea. The illness usually begins suddenly and lasts only one to three days. However, the spread of the virus was difficult to contain since conference attendees had been with each other for four days straight and also sharing rooms containing between three to six people.
“We did have a buffet dinner, so everyone was passing around serving spoons and all that so it was very easy to pass along,” Godmere said. “Once we had people getting sick on the buses and a lot of people contained on these buses with no airflow — that’s where a lot of it spread as well. “
Once news of the virus got out however, safe rooms were created and delegates were told to remain in their rooms until further notice within Harbour Hotel. The sick were confined to their respective rooms while the healthy stayed either in rooms of their own, or in groups.
“There were two reasons that things were handled quite quickly,” said Ian Jones, manager of Harbour Towers Hotel. “One, was as a company we have quite detailed procedures to deal with any type of emergency,” he explained.
“The other aspect is the relationship we have with the Vancouver Island Health Association. We wanted to get them involved as soon as possible and they got over to the hotel, and together we came up with an action plan to combat what was happening, and to limit its exposure and put an end to it as fast as possible.”
However, Godmere wanted to make one thing clear. “One thing that I want to clarify,” she explained, “Was that the word quarantine was never used by health authorities that we talked to, nor was it ever used by us in our official tweets.
“We were given a directive by BC health and the doctors who were talking to around midnight Saturday night and they just said, ‘it looks like norovirus, we want everyone to come back to the hotel and stay in their rooms, doctor’s orders.’ Doctor’s orders is very different than, ‘we have a quarantine situation on our hands.’”
The outbreak that began Saturday night finally began to wane around Monday, but some people were still falling ill late Sunday.
Though rebooking flights home caused complications and frustration, the healthy were sent back early Monday morning while the sick remained until late Tuesday evening.
“In otherwise healthy adults, it doesn’t have any serious consequences,” said Marshall. “The most serious it would be is dehydration so it’s really important people drink adequate amounts of fluid then keep a benign diet until your body is able to handle richer foods.”