Jefferson County Health Department officials were brought in to investigate reports of stomach flu-like illness among attendees at a physics seminar.
According to Carla Opp, an Environmental Health Specialist with the Jefferson County Health Department, the department began investigating a report of gastrointestinal illness from an attendee at a seminar hosted on campus and catered by Sodexo. Thirteen people who attended that seminar were sent questionnaires by the Health Department.
After the surveys are returned, the Health Department will statistically analyze them for any additional common factors, such as foods consumed, among the attendees. They will also look at the timeline each respondent provides to identify onset times as well as reported symptoms in order to pinpoint the cause of the illness. “Sometimes, you never know the source of an illness like this.” said Opp.
In addition to interviewing the attendees at the seminar, the Health Department also did an on-site inspection of the Sodexo facilities. According to Jeff Lougee of Sodexo, the inspection was not as thorough as a routine inspection would have been, but there were no violations found. The recommendations that the Health Department gave to Sodexo were recommendations to help prevent patrons from spreading viruses among themselves, not to correct food handling problems.
The Health Department recommended using a bleach solution to sanitize utensils and surfaces, rather than the cleaner that Sodexo normally uses. According to Lougee, this is because chlorine is more effective at killing viruses. Additionally, Sodexo has increased the rate at which they change out the serving utensils, and have increased the frequency that they clean the surfaces that people come into contact with.
According to Lougee, Sodexo goes to great lengths to prevent the spread of food-borne illness. Food is only bought from select, screened vendors, who have the same standards for handling. They are alerted of any food recalls, even if their vendors are not involved, and can track all of their food back to particular sources.
Food is not allowed to stay at temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than two hours, to prevent bacteria from growing. Most bacteria cannot grow at temperatures below 40 degrees, and will die at temperatures above 140 degrees.
In addition to the seminar attendees, “We noticed, last week, that several students were coming in with vomiting and diarrhea,” said Debra Roberge, Director of the Student Health Center. “We asked the questions we always ask, ‘When did it start?’ ‘Where did you eat?’ because it is really hard to differentiate between food poisoning and a viral gastroenteritis. There was no common denominator. Some ate here on campus, some lived off campus, eating in their own apartment, some became ill after eating at restaurants.”
Roberge said that the Health Department had also mentioned an increase in suspected cases of viral gastroenteritis at local elementary schools. This information, combined with the lack of common factors between the individuals going to the Health Center led Roberge to believe that there is just a strain of viral gastroenteritis going around, spread from person to person, not anything food-borne.
According to Roberge, symptoms that usually include stomach cramps commonly appear about 1 day after being exposed, and last for 12 hours to 2 days. Roberge recommended that people who had symptoms that lasted longer than two or three days see a doctor.
“I have had a couple of students who came in and said ‘I do not know why I got this, I got the flu shot.” said Roberge. However, Roberge pointed out that while viral gastroenteritis is commonly called the “stomach flu” it is not actually a strain of influenza and so would not be protected against by an influenza immunization shot.
Roberge noted that viral gastroenteritis is not generally spread through the air, and is mostly spread via contact with contaminated surfaces. Because of this, Roberge recommended to Gary Bowersock, director of facilities management, that facilities management increase the frequency with which they sanitize surfaces such as door handles and railings with bleach.
Roberge wanted to emphasize that “the bottom line is wash your hands, because this is only one thing. We have got the flu season coming up. That again is spread by droplets, by touching things. Everything can be prevented; colds, viruses can be prevented by people washing their hands frequently.” Roberge also mentioned that sharing food and drinks can help spread these kinds of diseases, and should be avoided.
The CDC recommends cleaning your hands with soap and water as the best method of preventing the spread of viral gastroenteritis. In addition, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 62% ethanol by volume may be used in addition to, but should not replace, hand-washing. Surfaces that may have been exposed should be cleaned with chlorine solutions of 1000 ppm or more.