Western Connecticut State University (WSCU) in Danbury closed on Monday, April 23, after approximately 100 students fell ill due to a norovirus outbreak, according to NBC. When students returned to campus the following Tuesday, a water main break occurred in Danbury, making WCSU’s campus water unusable for consumption, washing hands and brushing teeth, according to an email from WCSU President Dr. John B. Clark.
University of Connecticut spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said that while UConn has dealt with a similar outbreak of illness in 2015, there have not been any outbreaks near the extent of the norovirus at WCSU.
“Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for some viruses to spread quickly in areas where people live in close quarters, such as dormitories,” Reitz said. “A similar outbreak of virus-like GI symptoms occurred at UConn Storrs in February 2015… About a dozen people were either treated at Windham Hospital or Student Health Services over the period of a few days for an undetermined virus.”
Reitz said in cases of an outbreak of illness on campus, UConn’s Environmental Health and Safety Office is responsible for interviewing students about their health history and identifying common connections between the students’ illnesses. The office then uses this information to compare with local and state public health personnel about illnesses reported within the state and region.
“UConn calls in extra cleaning crews to deep-clean common areas in dorms where several such illnesses are reported…Extra attention is also given to spots such as elevator buttons, handrails and other areas touched by large numbers of people,” Reitz said. “The best way to control outbreaks such as this is with rigorous application of good personal hygiene practices, such as limiting exposure to those who are sick and washing hands frequently.”
Similarly, WCSU’s closure allowed common areas of the campus to be cleaned to the standards of the Center for Disease Control. Clark stated in an email that the campus can prevent the further spread of the norovirus outbreak by following state-recommended treatment and precautions.
One WCSU student said the university’s decision to close campus for only one day of sanitization during the week of finals was needed but preventable.
“If this had happened earlier in the semester and campus was only shut for one day, it would be ridiculous. But I understand WCSU’s desire to keep the school closed for as short as possible given the circumstances [of finals],” said WCSU eighth-semester communication major Emmet Forester. “All in all, I think they’re [WCSU] doing their best, but I think that had the school been better prepared for this type of situation, aspects of this situation could have been avoided.”
WCSU students were told to practice frequent handwashing and refrain from sharing foods and drinks with other students, and the university is also distributing bottled water for consumption and hand washing. The university also ensured students that norovirus is not food poisoning caused by Sodexo, the food services company that supplies to WCSU dining halls, according to an email from WCSU Student Government President Carlos Dos Santos.
Sixth-semester justice and law administration major Taylor DeLeon at WCSU said though many students are blaming WCSU’s dining services for the norovirus outbreak, these claims are unbased.
“As a student employee at Sodexo food services I do see that the campus is following proper protocol with the norovirus. On the dining and campus end, they have worked with the CDC and Department of Health to make everything up to cleanliness standards,” DeLeon said. “Everyone is pointing the finger at dining services when in reality they have followed a strict procedure and are doing what they can.”
Reitz also explained the procedure followed by UConn in the event of a water main break. With most core water pipes installed between 1914 and 1916, a majority of water pipes were not mapped correctly and most water main breaks are caused by construction workers hitting pipes.
“UConn has an extensive network of water mains and pipes throughout the Storrs campus, serving more than 12 million square feet of building space… There are times when the buildings can remain open and classes can continue, albeit with a directive to occupants not to use water, if fire crews are available to monitor the building during the time when the sprinkler system can’t be used,” Reitz said. “At other times, it’s best to close those buildings and move or cancel classes during the repairs.”
Reitz also explained how UConn dealt with one of its largest water main breaks in 2016 and ensured that current campus construction is working to prevent water main breaks in the future.
“UConn has experienced some major water line breaks over the past decade, including one in January 2016 under Glenbrook Road that caused about 300,000 gallons of water and silt to flood the first floor of the Bronwell Engineering Building,” Reitz said. “However, the good news is that the construction seen around campus in recent years is directly attributed to our work to address those kinds of problems through a massive multi-year endeavor to upgrade UConn’s aging underground infrastructure, including replacing old water pipes.”
According to an email from Clark, water will be safe for consumption by the end of this week. Clark said he remains hopeful the spread of the virus will keep decreasing.
“There is probably some person-to-person transmission occurring, but we are hopeful the number of cases will continue to decline,” Clark said.
The print version of this article stated that UConn’s viral outbreak in 2015 originated from Dining Services. This is an error, as the virus was not related to food or the dining halls operation. This change has been reflected in this this online version.
Kristina Carretero is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.