Students stranded by virus

Norovirus outbreak hits national virus in Victoria, B.C.

Kingston hospitals updated their pandemic-response plan following the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
Kingston hospitals updated their pandemic-response plan following the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.
Dr. Suzanne Billing, medical director at HCDS, says LaSalle says mononucleosis and bronchitis are among the most common winter illnesses on campus.
Dr. Suzanne Billing, medical director at HCDS, says LaSalle says mononucleosis and bronchitis are among the most common winter illnesses on campus.

On Tuesday, Justin Fauteux hadn’t left his Victoria, B.C. hotel room. He expected to be back in Waterloo on Sunday, working on the next issue of Wilfrid Laurier’s student newspaper, the Cord.

Instead, the Cord’s news director was alternating between vomiting and nibbling plain toast along with 40 other delegates from student papers across Canada who contracted Norovirus at the Canadian University Press (CUP) annual conference this weekend.

Ambulances were summoned to the hotel at around midnight on Saturday and a total of seven students were admitted to the hospital.

“They gave everyone the option of just staying in the room sipping water [and] taking Tylenol or go to the hospital,” Fauteux said.

Students from across the country went to participate in workshops and meet with industry specialists. The conference is one of CUP’s largest annual gatherings ­— this year, 360 people attended.

Eighty Canadian student newspapers are CUP members. The organization allows members to print news stories from other member papers through a wire service. The Journal isn’t currently a member of the organization.

Symptoms of Norovirus, commonly known as Norwalk, include vomiting and diarrhea.

According to the Vancouver Island Health Authority, healthy students have returned home but sick students will remain in voluntary isolation in Victoria.

CUP president James McDonald was up until 5 a.m. on Sunday morning helping other students who had contracted the virus. When he woke up later that morning, he had symptoms. He missed his Monday flight home.

“We’ve been advised we shouldn’t fly for 48 hours just because we could still be contagious,” McDonald said. “So I won’t be leaving until Tuesday.”

CUP staff first noticed the virus beginning to affect students on Saturday afternoon.

“One person got sick,” McDonald said. “We thought it was an isolated case. We weren’t sure what it was.”

When three more students became ill during the conference’s keynote address, McDonald probed further.

“Our first thought was that it was food poisoning … so we tried looking into that,” he said. ‘We ruled that out because it just couldn’t have been with the timing.”

Suzanne Germain, spokesperson for the Vancouver Island Health Authority, said Norovirus outbreaks of this scale are rare.

“It is really unpleasant to have,” she said. “You don’t know which end to stick in the toilet.”

Germain said the virus spreads rapidly in confined areas.

“Unless you have an underlying medical condition or you’re a frail elderly person, [you] have no need to go to hospital,” she said. “All you’re doing is spreading it around … and exposing people who are already sick and vulnerable to this.”

Though Norovirus isn’t a particular concern, Queen’s health officials are gearing up for the winter season — when illnesses spike and spread quickly on campus.

Dr. Gordon Jones, who works the emergency room at Hotel Dieu, said 18 to 20 per cent of the people who visit the Kingston General Hospital (KGH) emergency room are admitted into the hospital.

He said these figures increase in the winter months. According to Jones, student cases in the emergency room are primarily pneumonia and flu.

“If I had any advice to give to people, it’s if they have a fever or cough, they should stay home rather than go to classes,” Jones said, adding that hand-washing is a must.

Jones worked at KGH and Hotel Dieu during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009.

“It seemed like the whole world was sick, and the number of people we treated in emergency was tremendous,” he said, adding that the H1N1 scare brought about extensive change to the pandemic plan for Kingston-area hospitals, including additional emergency treatment facilities and virus control.

By December 2009, 232 H1N1 cases had been reported in Ontario.

Jones said after an initial outbreak of H1N1, a secondary peak will follow in a few months.

According to a report by Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer, 128 people had died of H1N1 by the end of January 2010.

The Pandemic Influenza Plan updated during the 2009 outbreak is still in place in Kingston-area hospitals, though Jones said he doesn’t expect it will be needed this year.

Residence Life manager Chauncey Kennedy said residences have procedures in place for outbreaks during cold and flu season.

He said residences contain home-care rooms where students can move temporarily while ill, adding that they are used mostly in cases where a sick student’s roommate is at risk.

“Residences can also give permission for a friend to pick up meals from the cafeteria so they can still use their meal plan,” Kennedy said.

“When we learn of an illness that seems to be concentrating in an area or spreading around a bit, we work very closely with our colleagues in residence facilities to increase the frequency that all surfaces are cleaned.”

The Health, Counselling and Disability Services clinic at the LaSalle building is available for sick students.

Dr. Suzanne Billing, HCDS medical director, said most students come to LaSalle with influenza, gastroenteritis (stomach flu), pharyngitis (throat infection), sinusitis (sinus infection) or rhino-conjunctivitis (cold-like illnesses). She said mononucleosis and bronchitis are also common.

“Being well-rested, having a modest alcohol intake, eating healthily, stress management and regular exercise help to support and strengthen our immune system,” Billing told the Journal via email.

LaSalle offers urgent care and by-appointment visits. Billing said students who are too ill to make an appointment should go to the emergency room at KGH or Hotel Dieu.

Though the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington public health unit holds free flu shot clinics in the area, one needle isn’t always enough.

Maureen Pickering, manager of the Urgent Care Centre at Hotel Dieu, said children and the elderly are most at risk during the flu season.

Despite this, she said students should still be immunized.

“Once they have the flu and come in here, there’s not much that can be done,” Pickering said. “There’s no point in getting the flu shot then.”

This year, the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Public Health unit distributed flu shots containing an H1N1 immunization as well.


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