Outbreak of gastrointestinal illness afflicts students

After being wrenched awake by stomach pain in the early hours of April 25, Henryk Kessel ’25 found himself vomiting in the bathrooms of Josselyn House. Feeling light-headed, he went to a friend’s room and asked her to call Vassar Emergency Medical Services (EMS). “I was losing my sight and hearing, and was incredibly confused and scared,” he recalled. Kessel would be the fourth to report symptoms related to nausea, vomiting and diarrhea that night on campus.

Later that day, at 12:28 p.m. Associate Dean of the College Luis Inoa announced in an email to the student body that Vassar College had experienced a cluster of possible gastroenteritis cases since the Campus Response Center (CRC) had responded to the first report just after midnight. “The cause of this illness has not been precisely determined at this time but could be infectious and short-lived,” the email explained.

As of April 27, there have been a total of 62 cases, mostly among students, according to an email released by Director of Health Service Margot Schinella. “The DOH has interviewed some of the cases that went to the emergency room and do not feel that this is food poisoning based on the way the illness has presented and the transmission pattern they are seeing,” the email stated. “While the exact cause of this illness has not been determined at this time the illness appears to be infectious and generally resolves in less than 72 hours.”

Common symptoms around campus have included nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. “My diagnosis came to me when I was throwing up and heard that other people were doing the same,” said Ila Kumar ’25. “[I] heard other people on my floor actually throwing up.”

Another student, David Roos ’25 said he began feeling symptoms such as vomiting, chills, dizziness and a lack of consciousness. In a written correspondence, he said, “The next morning I collapsed against my desk trying to get water and asked my roommate to call an ambulance. I went to the hospital for a couple of hours, was put on an IV, [and] was told I was dangerously dehydrated. If I kept puking for another 9 hours (twice as long as I was), it would have been incredibly serious.”

Roos said he has no idea where he contracted the illness. He noted, “All I know is the night I was puking in the bathroom, there were at least 2 others going in and out puking, too.”

In response to a request for updates and clarification on the outbreak, Schinella stated, “The cause of the illness is not known at this time as there is no commonality that has been identified among the cases. The local Health Department is investigating further.”

The lack of knowledge over the source of the outbreak, as well as Vassar’s responses, has left students like Kessel frustrated.  In particular, he expressed dissatisfaction with EMS’ response to his medical situation. “After explaining my situation—the dizziness, the vomiting, the disorientation—I was met with comments like, ‘Well that’s what happens when you throw up,’” Kessel said. “I felt dismissed by the [suggestion] that I was just another call with the same symptoms, rather than supported. When Arlington EMS arrived in addition to Vassar EMS, they were confused as to why my vitals hadn’t been taken yet, which created a bit of an uncomfortable disagreement between the two groups of people.” At the time of publication, EMS could not be reached for comment.

Roos, a resident of Davison House, said that Vassar didn’t take much notice of his situation at the time. “People in my dorm were dropping like flies,” he said. “I had no communication from the school until [Tuesday] evening. I got a call asking what my initial symptoms were, what they were now, and what the hospital told me. I was then told I could go to Baldwin if I needed.” He added that he wasn’t told he was supposed to quarantine, though he knows he should. 

According to Schinella, the College has alerted Facilities Operations and Dining Services on implementing what she referred to as “enhanced cleaning and disinfection procedures,” as well as providing guidance for Campus Safety regarding hygiene measures when responding to calls in order to contain its spread. Vassar has also coordinated with the Arlington Fire Department and Mobile Life Support Services in transporting ill individuals to local emergency rooms, if needed. “Arlington Fire has staffed an ambulance on the campus to provide rapid on-site triage and transportation as needed,” she stated. 

Schinella’s April 27 email also noted that Dining Services have been alerted to safeguard hygiene practices and that the Dean of Studies Office is working with students and faculty affected by the illness for academic accommodations. 

Dean Inoa’s email advised the Vassar community to be conscious of hygiene, stating, “This type of infection may spread quickly within a residential community so it is important to pay particular attention to good hygiene practices such as frequent handwashing and high touch surface disinfection to prevent viral spread.  Also avoid sharing any food, beverages or utensils with others.”

For now, students who are experiencing gastroenteritis symptoms can contact Vassar’s Health Service at (845) 437-5800. They will be evaluated in a triage tent located outside of Baldwin House between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Additional reporting by Jacques Abou-Rizk and Will Sorge.

 

One Comment

  1. Nothing new. This sort of thing has been happening to Vassar students since the beginning of time. Wait until you get out into the real world. ..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *