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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Norovirus touches down at Tufts

Tufts football and field hockey teams faced an unexpected challenge during preparation for this year's Homecoming weekend. A rapid outbreak of norovirus made about 20 athletes ill, causing them to be absent from practice.

According to Tufts Health Service Medical Director Dr. Margaret Higham, the virus spread after 13 field hockey team members were infected during a trip to Wesleyan University. 

Norovirus is characterized by various symptoms, including vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes headache and muscle ache. The disease is highly contagious among people in close proximity and can be acquired through ingesting food contaminated with fecal matter.

A health handout distributed to athletes by Health Service explained that many symptoms of the virus subside after 24 hours.

Most of the sick football players were cured and back on the field by the Homecoming game, according to one Tufts football player, who wished to remain anonymous. Practices ran smoothly and the team was able to complete its regular routines in preparation for its victory against Bowdoin College on Oct. 10.

According to Higham, norovirus is very common -- something Health Service manages all the time.

“We had a bunch [of cases] last year, in some of the sports teams, and last spring there were a lot of students who had norovirus on campus for weeks,” Higham said.

Higham suggested that the reason the virus spread so quickly through the field hockey and football team might have something to do with the close contact among athletes.

"We don't know for sure why that happened," she said. "[The team was] traveling to Wesleyan for a game. It was like a day and a half later that they got sick, so we assume it was somehow on that trip -- maybe from the food they bought at a restaurant, maybe from a bathroom that was on the bus. Often, people don't know where they get it."

The previously mentioned football player acknowledged that team members are often in close proximity with one another, especially in the locker room. He did not believe any lack of hygiene in the lockers could be blamed for the spread of the virus, however.

“I just think it’s kind of bad luck to have this type of thing,” he said.

He added that, after the outbreak, players were asked to clean their personal belongings in the lockers with anti-bacterial wipes. Health Service also took action by distributing handouts to the athletes about the virus' basic symptoms. It also included information about treating the virus, and recommended that students get plenty of rest, vomit into toilets instead of sinks and wash their hands regularly.

Higham explained that Health Service, which treats anywhere from 70 to 120 students a day, sees a large number of cases of contagious viruses, such as mononucleosis, pink-eye and flu, every year.

“We see a lot of cold viruses, we see a lot of fever viruses and a lot of intestinal viruses -- a norovirus type of thing -- on a regular basis,” she said.

Health Service offers resources, such as the annual on-campus flu clinic, to help students immunize against certain preventable diseases.

“We usually do about 3,000 [flu shots] here," Higham said. "I figured it is about 40 percent of the whole entire student population, maybe more considering those who take it elsewhere.”

Treatment for some types of outbreaks, however, is limited.

“Many of these diseases can't be prevented," Higham said. "With that H1N1 Flu a few years ago, there wasn't a vaccine for it. So we talked to people about washing their hands, covering their coughs, we gave them the regular flu vaccine, but there wasn’t a special flu vaccine until a number of months later ... A lot of prevention is the same, no matter what the illness is.”

Senior Director of Health and Wellness Services Michelle Bowdler, noted that many students outside of the field hockey and football teams were not aware of the outbreak, and explained that Health Service chose not to make a public announcement due to the fact that the outbreak mostly affected an isolated group of people.

"If you send something everyday from Health Service, people won't know what's important, so we really have to think carefully about how quickly we communicate and with whom in order to get the most effective response," she said. “If there were ever a need to let people know about something immediately, we have the capacity...to let all students know immediately. With norovirus, I think it’s more localized."

Bowdler has been collaborating with Higham for on a Health Service blog, which provides some general information about disease prevention on campus, among other types of advice. One post, titled “Welcome to the Germ Pool,” offers tips on staying healthy during the fall --  a time when many students are especially susceptible to common diseases.

Health Service has also been developing a “parents program” -- introduced by Bowdler --  that allows the school to network with parents to share certain health notifications more effectively.

“Ever since we've been doing that, our number for the flu clinic has really gone up,” Bowdler said.