Virus hits Georgetown

Correction appended

Nearly 200 Georgetown students were diagnosed with a highly contagious virus last week, prompting administrators to take widespread measures to contain the spreading illness.

The outbreak began when students checked into the hospital with symptoms of what appeared to be food poisoning – including vomiting, diarrhea, fever and headache. The number of infected students increased throughout the week, and the D.C. Department of Health determined that almost all had the norovirus, which is usually spread through fecal matter and vomit, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Maren Paslick, a sophomore at Georgetown, fled the campus last weekend to avoid contracting the virus. Her roommate was hospitalized Tuesday morning after she reported several of the symptoms.

“My parents are scared,” Paslick said. “They wanted me to come home.”

She added, “When we discovered what it really was – that is was contagious – there was definite panic.”

Georgetown’s only dining hall, Leo J. O’Donovan Hall, was initially thought to be the virus’ point of origin. Georgetown officials closed the area on Wednesday for thorough inspection and sanitation before reopening it for dinner the next evening.

Rhiannon Petras, a Georgetown freshman from Illinois, had dinner at O’Donovan’s Thursday night and described the meal as “depressing.”

“Everything is brought to you. No one is allowed to touch anything,” Petras said. “You walk in and they make you sanitize your hands. Then you swipe your card; they make you sanitize your hands. It’s so sterile.”

Throughout the week, Georgetown officials made statements and held press conferences to respond to the crisis and keep the campus informed of the university’s actions. The school provided electrolyte drinks and added money to all students’ school debit cards so they could do additional loads of laundry.

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GW’s student-run emergency response team, EMeRG, traveled to the campus to assist Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Students, who had been working overtime to aid sick students.

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Noroviruses are viruses that cause gastroenteritis, more commonly known as the stomach flu, according to the CDC. Paslick and other Georgetown students with sick roommates were told that the virus is contagious up to two weeks after recovery.

On the second floor of Harbin Hall, where Petras lives, three students were hospitalized. In Paslick’s sophomore residence hall, five on her floor were sick, including one of the goalies on her soccer team.

In neighboring Foggy Bottom, GW took precautions to stop the virus from reaching students. The University posted a campus advisory Friday informing students of the Georgetown outbreak and designated precautions to avoid disease transmission.

The Department of Health recommended that students frequently wash their hands and use hand sanitizer to prevent the continued spread of the virus.

Matt Menkes, a Georgetown freshman from Toronto, was hospitalized Wednesday and released soon after, but he said he is confident that his university has already seen the worst of the epidemic.

“At this point if you don’t have it, you probably won’t get it,” he said Friday.

Georgetown officials said Friday in a news release that the number of students reporting symptoms has decreased, but sanitation efforts would remain in place for several more days.

The article has been changed to reflect the following correction: (October 6, 2008)

The Hatchet erroneously reported that the GW student-run emergency response group, EMeRG, aided efforts at Georgetown, based on a Georgetown news release. The group did not respond to the campus.

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