Test reveals what made Georgia College students, 100 others so sick

Based on electron microscopic (EM) imagery, this illustration provides a three-dimensional (3D), graphical representation of a number of norovirus virions, set against a black background.
Based on electron microscopic (EM) imagery, this illustration provides a three-dimensional (3D), graphical representation of a number of norovirus virions, set against a black background. Centers for Disease Control

A highly contagious stomach bug that sickened more than 120 people after it was first reported last week by a cluster of Georgia College students was identified Tuesday as a norovirus.

Though the origin of this one is still being investigated, noroviruses are the No. 1 cause of disease outbreak from contaminated food in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The probe started Feb. 6 when Baldwin County Health Department’s environmental health specialists inspected the Milledgeville campus after a cluster of 13 students reported having a gastrointestinal illness. It is a standard public health response to a cluster, which the CDC defines as “an unusual aggregation, real or perceived, of health events that are grouped together in time and space and that are reported to a health agency.”

The college closed its campus dining halls after students reported stomach pain, Georgia College spokeswoman Brittiny Johnson said in an email to The Telegraph.

“With student’s safety as our top priority, we made the decision out of an abundance of caution,” she said.

The school’s dining facilities were sanitized with soap and a chlorine bleach solution. All were inspected by health department environmental health specialists and reopened Thursday, except for the Lunch Box, which was closed “due to a cooler malfunctioning” but it set to reopen Wednesday, Johnson said.

In a post on the school’s website late Tuesday, Johnson asked students to “please note that there is no evidence that any of the illnesses we have seen were the result of food contamination from any of our dining facilities.”

The school made disinfectant wipes available to all students in resident halls and provided hand sanitizer to students entering the main dining hall, Johnson wrote in the online post.

“We reminded students of appropriate hand-washing behaviors consistent with cold/flu season,” according to the online post. “We cleaned all public toilets and we offered to make our university cleaning services available to students who wanted their bathroom areas cleaned.”

Michael Hokanson, spokesman for the Georgia Department of Health’s North Central Health District, said in a news release Tuesday that at least 127 reports of the virus were associated with the outbreak and the investigation is ongoing.

Hokanson did not reply when asked which of many kinds of norovirus was the culprit in this outbreak.

In general, symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, fever, body aches and headaches, according to the CDC. Recovery can take one to three days but people can transfer the norovirus to others for at least three days after being sick. There’s no specific medicine for treatment.

The norovirus spreads through contact with an infected person, through touching a contaminated surface, eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, according to the CDC.

Though people often associate cruise ships with the norovirus, outbreaks on a boat make up only 1 percent of overall outbreaks. Health care facilities, restaurants, catered events, day cares and schools are the most common places for outbreaks because “shared surfaces make it easy for norovirus to spread in schools,” according to the CDC.

If you are ill, the Georgia Department of Public Health recommends the following:

Stay away from work, school or social activities

Wait at least 48 hours after symptoms disappear before returning to your normal schedule

Call a doctor if your symptoms are severe or do not disappear within three days

If you are well:

Wash your hands with soap and warm running water before eating or preparing food

If you are caring for someone who is sick, be sure to dispose of waste properly

Wash laundry thoroughly, including any soiled clothing or contaminated linens

Disinfect surfaces that may be contaminated Handle and prepare food safely

Laura Corley covers education news for The Telegraph, where she advocates for government transparency and writes about issues affecting today’s youth. She grew up in Middle Georgia and graduated from Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism.