~~~
Day’s Verse:
O send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead me; let them bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling places.
Psalm 43:3
~~~

A-term I took a class called Writing about Disease and Public health. Now, D-term, WPI has had a serious health scare: sixty-odd students have experienced serious food-poisoning from eating at the on-campus food service. Right at our doorstep, the perfect opportunity to show what effective communicatin can do! Unfortunately, that has not yet happened, and one woman – Janet Begin Richardson – has had the difficult job for the last week of telling the student body that nobody knows anything. For posterity, I preserve her emails here:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2005 6:34 AM
To: Everybody
Subject: An Advisory

As you may be aware, a number of our students became ill yesterday evening from a suspected food-borne illness. A total of 25 students were transported to Worcester hospitals to be treated for abdominal pain, nausea, and related symptoms. All have been returned to campus or are expected to be returned this morning.

During the evening, as WPI s Police Department became aware that a growing number of students were reporting similar symptoms, police officers and WPI s Emergency Medical Service, in consultation with the EMS service at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, set up a triage center in the Wedge to evaluate students. In addition, Student Life staff worked with residence hall assistants to conduct a careful check of all WPI residence facilities to identify students who might require treatment.

WPI s Health Services and Student Life staffs will continue to be alert to any additional students who may report symptoms. WPI will conduct an investigation to determine the probable cause of this illness and will take all appropriate precautionary measures to assure the safety of the university s food service facilities.

I would like to express my gratitude to WPI s Police Department and EMS, and the staffs of our Student Life and Health Services offices, for the prompt and professional actions they took to respond to this health emergency and to assure that all affected students received the best possible care. I would also like to thank the UMass EMS staff, the EMS units from Worcester and nearby towns who worked with our staff to treat and transport students, and the personnel at area hospitals for all that they did to assist the university and come to the aid of our students.

This is news to me! Well, OK, they have hardly had time to think about this. She sent the email out at a difficult time, and so we accept the lack of helpful data. Apparently at this point RAs were going around waking their residents up to be sure they were still alive. This made for some very confused residents. Next email:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Thursday, April 21, 2005 4:33 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Health Advisory Update

I am writing to the WPI community to provide an update on the health advisory I sent earlier this morning. I appreciate your patience in giving us time to more closely assess and react to the situation. The health and well-being of our entire community is of utmost importance.

Since this morning, 38 WPI students have been transported to local hospitals, and 10 additional students have been seen by the staff at the WPI Health Center. These students reported symptoms including abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and possible fever. A total of three students, both on- and off-campus, have been admitted to area hospitals.

WPI officials are working closely with the Department of Public Health to identify the source of these symptoms. Rest assured that as soon as we know that a cause has been determined, I will notify you immediately.

I know that not having all of the answers right away can sometimes lead to confusion and rumors. I ask for continued patience as well as alertness to any of the symptoms I have previously mentioned. Anyone who is experiencing these symptoms should seek appropriate medical care by contacting the WPI Health Center at 508 831-5520. After hours the on-call physician can be reached at 508 334-8830. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please contact the WPI campus Police at 508 831-5433.

By this time rumors have begun circulating and fingers point towards one Mediterranean Chicken Sandwich as a possible culprit. In one of my classes, a class of 19, only 10 students showed up. Some legitimately were hospitalized, apparently. Next email:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Friday, April 22, 2005 3:26 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Health Advisory Update

I would like to begin today’s update on the campus health advisory by thanking everyone for their patience and cooperation. I am pleased to report that all students who had been admitted to area hospitals have been released. This is very heartening news.

The latest information we have about the recent outbreak of illness on the campus is as follows:

The Department of Public Health has confirmed that a total of 61 WPI students have been afflicted with similar gastrointestinal symptoms within the last 48 hours. Those symptoms include abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fever. The Department’s investigation of the outbreak is continuing, but the cause has not yet been identified. The outbreak does, however, appear to be confined to the campus. I will certainly communicate the cause with the campus once it is isolated.

I continue to ask for your patience as well as your assistance in supporting any students who are exhibiting the symptoms I have mentioned. Anyone who is experiencing these symptoms should seek appropriate medical care by contacting the WPI Health Center at 508 831-5520. After hours the on-call physician can be reached at 508 334-8830. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, please contact the WPI Campus Police at 508 831-5433.

By this time the food service people have taken serious, drastic action by wrapping their fruit in saran-wrap and removing all common utensils. They also replaced all metal utensils with disposable ones, so students eat on all disposable plates with disposable utensils. Clearly, this is more sanitary! Other students, coming up with suggestions on-par with the sanitary measures undertaken by the dining hall, suggest that a single sick person has infected all these people. Yes, yes. Thankfully the loud jeers shut them up. Final email:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Monday, April 25, 2005 3:49 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Health Advisory Update

I didn’t want to let today slip by without checking in with the campus community about last week’s outbreak of illness. While there is no definitive information to share with you at this time about the actual cause, please be assured that this incident is being thoroughly investigated by the Department of Public Health. As promised, I will communicate the outcome of this investigation to you as soon as I know.

It does seem that the vast majority of the cases on campus last week occurred before the weekend. I hope that all of the students who fell ill are feeling better. And, again, I extend my sincere gratitude to everyone at WPI for their patience and understanding.

Rumors abound, but little solid information follows. By now the topic has become one on par with the weather and life has moved on. The quesion really is, will we ever hear what actually caused these 61 illnesses?

To be cont
inued…

Update as of 6:15, 4/25/05. Thankfully she gave us some concrete information, although clearly her haste to impart it caused her to spell new wrong. Also, her use of the word germs implies a) WPI students have never heard of viruses; and b) She has NO CLUE what a germ is. Ian suggests she be downsized, but I cannot imagine where she would go from here. Latest email:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Monday, April 25, 2005 5:51 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Neew Health Information

Shortly after I sent out my latest health advisory update to the community this afternoon, I received the following information from WPI’s Health Services, which has been working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to ascertain the cause of last week’s outbreak of illness on campus.

This is a follow-up to inform you that three of six cases submitted to the state lab in the Department of Public Health have tested positive for a Norwalk-like virus. Norwalk virus or noroviruses are a group of viruses (germs) that cause gastrointestinal illnesses. The symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps. Other symptoms can include headache, fever, and chills and muscle aches. These symptoms usually begin 1-2 days after exposure to the virus and will last about 1-2 days in most people with no long term effects.

We are encouraged that we are coming closer to understanding the cause, but urge the community to continue to engage in good hygiene practices to avoid further transmission of the infection. The Department of Public Health recommends that community members follow the tips below to prevent infection by the Norwalk virus:

Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water before eating or preparing food and after using the toilet.
Make sure all food preparation areas are clean before use.
Cook your food completely. Wash all fruits and vegetables.

I will continue to keep the community informed and appreciate your time and attention. Please contact WPI’s Health Services at 508-831-5520 or your local health-care provider if you need additional information.

These emails could be a drinking game! Take a drink every time Janet Richardson uses the words nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal cramps; last one standing (?) wins. Might as well take advantage of one of the few times an official communique includes such vocabulary. Also note the futility of her suggestions for avoiding such disease, since students eating at the dining hall have zero control over the completeness of their food’s cooking or the cleanliness of their fruit, the food-preparers’ hands, or the food preparation areas. You know somebody’s sitting back smirking at that cruel joke.

Update as of 4:40, 4/26/05. Reaffirming that the Norwalk virus sickened some students, and the food services people are making sure their illegal-immigrant slaves start washing their hands between using the bathroom and preparing student meals. The email:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Tuesday, April 26, 2005 4:11 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Health Advisory Update

As I mentioned in yesterday’s e-mail to the community, we have received word that three of six cases of student illness that were submitted to the state lab in the Department of Public Health have tested positive for Norwalk-like viruses, or noroviruses. It is, like many illnesses, difficult to test in the laboratory; it’s even harder to say how many people get infected by this particular virus in Massachusetts. Because of this, it may be hard for us to determine, even when the testing is complete, a “single cause” or even a “main cause” for this outbreak.

Since last week, however, WPI has been proactively engaging with public health officials, students, parents, and other members of our community to ensure that the correct and best information about this outbreak is being disseminated. We are also continuing to follow measures designed to safeguard against a similar occurrence, including working hand-in-hand with Chartwells on its policies and procedures and emphasizing to our students and staff the importance of hand washing after using the toilet and prior to handling food.

To learn more about the Norwalk virus, go to

http://www.wpi.edu/Admin/Health/norwalk.html

To learn more about WPI’s response to the outbreak, go to
http://www.wpi.edu/Admin/Health/wpiresponse.html

They clearly feel a need to continue communicating with the student body, possibly in the hopes of squashing further rumors of marauding uncooked chicken; but the sheer repetition of these emails and their truly astounding dearth of hard facts give them a wonderfully useless but surrealistic feeling. In tomorrow’s email: don’t eat your own feces. Also, try killing your dinner before eating it.

Update as of 4/30/05 at 7:50 am:

From: On Behalf Of Janet Begin Richardson
Sent: Friday, April 29, 2005 9:39 PM
To: Everyone
Subject: Health Advisory Update

Late Friday afternoon, WPI’s Health Services received notification that one of the food handlers in Morgan Hall tested positive for a Norwalk-like virus. Surveys are still being conducted and the testing of samples will continue. The investigation will not be officially closed until all the results have been determined.

Chartwells is aware of this information and, since the beginning of the outbreak on campus on April 21, has been highly responsive to our community and to ensuring the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff. Steve Hebert, Vice President for Administration, has issued the following statement to the media: “We have been working with Chartwells and its predecessor companies for more 30 years. As the search for the cause of the illness has been going on, we have been impressed with the speed, professionalism, and thoroughness of Chartwells’ response, and the close working relationship they have had with state and city health officials. We have full confidence in Chartwells.”

I thank you for your continued patience and will continue to update you as information becomes available.

This hardly surprises anybody because most of the food handlers have yet to gain a strong grasp of English, and we wonder if they are even legal residents. You might hope they would maintain basic hygene, especially when dealing with food like this. Well, I just appreciate my own kitchen, where I can endanger my own self however I like. After all, I know where my hands have been.

– KF –

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