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More than 75 student journalists fall ill at national conference in B.C.

VICTORIA (CUP)—IT SPREAD VERY, very quickly. It could have been just one person not washing their hands; that’s how a norovirus-like illness infected more than 75 delegates attending the Canadian University Press national conference at the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites in Victoria, B.C.

“It’s highly likely that a student brought it in,” said Vancouver Island Health Authority (VIHA) spokesperson Shannon Marshall. “There were no reports of illness from the hotel staff at all [before the conference], and our health protection officers have ruled out food poisoning.”

Norovirus symptoms include nausea, headaches, muscle aches, vomiting, and diarrhea. It’s a common cause of gastrointestinal illness—what used to be called the “stomach flu”—and spreads quickly. Anyone can get it because of how easily it’s transmitted.

The virus can survive on surfaces, and touching any contaminated surface and then touching your mouth can spread it. Exposure to those who have vomited due to the virus can also contaminate others.

The trouble started as Chris Jones, a writer for Esquire, gave the final keynote speech on the evening of Jan. 14. He noticed delegates began getting up to leave while he was still speaking. After the speech ended, event organizer Jason Schreurs approached Jones and informed him that people had left due to illness.

The severity of the situation didn’t become apparent to Jones until much later.

“After the speech, I talked to quite a few people and shook a lot of hands,” said Jones, “and I went to bed because I was pretty tired and jet-lagged. And then Jason called at 11 o’clock to see if my wife and I were okay.

“About five minutes later, it was just the most calamitous vomiting of my life, and there was just no holding it back,” he said. “I was puking out of my eyeballs; I was screaming at the toilet.”

Because he was only ill for about 20 minutes before feeling better, Jones thought he had simply been food poisoned. But when his wife returned from the hotel lobby she came back and let him know the situation: It wasn’t food poisoning at all. The national conference had gone viral.

“I gotta tell ya,” Jones recalled. “I have never puked like that—and I went to college.”

Delegates left Jones’ keynote to bus to the gala event at the University of Victoria’s Vertigo nightclub. On one of the buses, unfortunate delegate Brennan Bova from the Fulcrum had someone vomit on his head. Twitter exploded with reports of illness from delegates. There weren’t just a few people sick; there were dozens. Conference organizers quickly cancelled the gala event.

Management at the Harbour Towers and B.C. Ambulance Service notified VIHA that conference delegates were getting sick. People were vomiting in elevators and on stairwells—it was getting messy.

“Our advice was from all indications of the illness and the way that it presented itself, that it was a norovirus-like illness,” said Marshall, “and because of the nature of norovirus, in a generally healthy population such as the students at this conference, the symptoms will resolve on their own within 40–48 hours of onset.”

There’s no treatment for norovirus. According to Marshall, most people will recover within two to three days after becoming ill, but they will continue to be contagious for up to 48 hours after their last symptom.

On the morning of Jan. 17, Sarah Petz, a delegate from the Manitoban who had made it all the way back home from the conference without experiencing symptoms, reported via Twitter that she had become ill as well.

“I really thought I was in the clear until this morning,” said Petz. “I woke up feeling fine, but at about 11 a.m. I started to feel queasy and cramping. I’ve been vomiting. I’ve been rather violently ill.”

By the end of the day on Jan. 17, all delegates and volunteers for the conference had checked out of the hotel. Many had waited days to leave to allow symptoms to subside. While WestJet and Air Canada provided flight re-bookings to some affected delegates with no added fees, at least one delegate was turned away at the airport and returned to the hotel.

More than 75 delegates, 15 hotel staff, and two speakers became ill throughout the ordeal, and more have fallen ill since their return home. And despite the outbreak of a norovirus-like illness, most who attended still considered this year’s conference to be a resounding success.

Petz, who has attended CUP national conferences since 2009, said this one stood out for her.

“It was definitely an amazing conference,” she said. “I think anyone that goes to the conferences will tell you that they’re so valuable for your progression as a journalist.”

She laughed, and added, “I was kind of joking to one of my friends that the puking now was totally worth the conference before.”

—Dylan Wilks, Nexus