Test results have confirmed what health officials suspected from the start: Norovirus is the culprit in the outbreak of gastrointestinal illness at Oregon State University.
As of Wednesday afternoon, an estimated 75 students — mostly dormitory residents — have been sickened in the outbreak, which began last week as students were returning to the Corvallis campus for the start of the spring term.
“It’s not untypical after spring break, when students are on the road traveling, for this to come back from anywhere,” said Jenny Haubenreiser, director of OSU Student Health Services.
Haubenreiser 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.
Symptoms of norovirus include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fever. The disease generally runs its course in three or four days, but it’s highly contagious and can be spread by person-to-person contact or by contact with a contaminated surface or object.
Moreover, infected persons remain contagious for several days after the illness ends.
OSU officials are urging students with the illness to stay home while they’re sick and for a full three days after they’ve recovered to avoid spreading the disease.
“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.
OSU staff members have been doing extra cleaning of potential transmission surfaces such as elevator buttons, doorknobs and tables in dorms and dining halls, and campus food service operations have temporarily eliminated self-service stations and food container recycling programs while switching from washable to disposable plates and utensils.
Bill Emminger, director of the Benton County Environmental Health Division, said it’s impossible to predict how long the outbreak might last or whether it’s likely to spread beyond the OSU campus.
“You’re asking the million-dollar question right there,” he said. “A lot of times with norovirus, when it gets into the community it just keeps trudging along and spreading.”
Emminger said virus particles can remain active for up to a week and advised cleaning contaminated surfaces with a strong bleach solution — ¾ cup of concentrated bleach per gallon of water.