Norovirus breaks out at SI

By Emma Talkoff

Students at St. Ignatius High School found themselves in a situation last month that SI junior Chris Jadallah likened to “a scene from a zombie movie:” Bathroom stalls were occupied by retching students, classes rapidly dwindled as more fell ill each period, and exiting students were forced to navigate a maze of vomit-splattered hallways on the way to safety. Before the illness had run its course, 972 of the school’s 1400 or so students and fifty-nine of its staff members had come down with what the center for disease control describes as “acute gastroenteritis.” Ultimately, the school was forced to shut down for three days as the building was disinfected and the majority of its student body suffered through fevers, headaches, cramps, and, most memorably, relentless vomiting fits.

Students at SI suffered from an outbreak of the norovirus, a highly communicable virus that’s spread through contact with the vomit and waste of infected individuals. It thrives in closed, highly populated environments, especially those in which person-to-person contact is frequent—in other words, your average high school. And while this particular outbreak may have been confined to St. Ignatius, the potential for the virus to work its way into other schools is high. “It’s sickening to think about, actually,” said Tam district nurse Wanda Milford. “It’s so very contagious.”

So contagious, in fact, that the virus, which has infected 216 Marin residents since January 1st, may already have infiltrated the so far vomit-free hallways of Tam High: several students were recently sent home with symptoms hauntingly familiar to those of the norovirus. Tam sophomore Brendan Austin was one such student. Austin fell ill in late January and went through the twenty-four hour puking phase which is common to sufferers of the virus. Reasonably, Austin “had no appetite” for the several days surrounding his illness, and “ended up losing twelve pounds in two days.”

Although the exact classification of his illness remains unconfirmed, Austin’s symptoms and the progression of his illness closely match those of norovirus-stricken SI students, as do the symptoms of the several other Tam students who took sick days recently.

Jadallah believed that he had escaped from school unscathed after witnessing the aforementioned horrors of last Tuesday, but was shortly proven wrong. “By 9 PM I felt nauseous,” said the junior. The night that followed was marked by vomiting, nausea, headache, and fever—hallmarks of the norovirus.

If Jadallah suffered, at least he didn’t suffer alone. “Almost all of my friends were sick,” said Jadallah. “Everyone I talked to had thrown up.” Some students were even rushed to emergency rooms to receive fluids to combat the dehydration brought on by continuous vomiting.

With most of the staff and student body incapacitated with the virus, the school closed for three days as administrators worked with the Department of Health to determine the cause of the outbreak, and every surface of the school was vigorously sanitized.

Three years ago, at the height of the H1NI (popularly known as swine flu) outbreak, Tam High experienced a similar closure following a student’s contraction of the virus. According to Marin County’s chief public health officer, as quoted in the Marin IJ, Tam was shut down for three days in an act of extreme caution and to “ensure the safety of students, staff, parents, and the wider community.”

Until a significant number of students and staff come down with confirmed cases of the norovirus, it’s unlikely that administration and local health officials will undertake such drastic steps again. To prevent such an outbreak, students are being strongly encouraged to practice regular and rigorous hygiene. “I am telling every and anybody the most important thing is to keep hands washed, and if you’re sick, stay home,” said Milford. Because the virus is spread through contact with contaminated waste and vomit, hand-washing is an essential step in containing the illness and curtailing its spread. “It seems so simple,” said Milford. But if students and staff at Tam High fail to maintain a germ-free environment, the notorious norovirus could just as easily strike here as it did at St. Ignatius.