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How a N.B. university tried to keep a 'nasty illness' from spreading in 2006

In hopes of containing the spread of a virus, a squirt of hand sanitizer was required as students entered cafeterias on campus.

Classes and sports halted as 'Norwalk-type' virus swept through Mount Allison University

New Brunswick's Mount Allison University took measures to contain a virus that sickened over 100 students. 2:11

A "nasty illness" was racing through Mount Allison University in the fall of 2006, as The National's Peter Mansbridge told viewers on Oct. 13, 2006.

The New Brunswick school had taken "emergency measures" to slow the sickness, including cancelling all classes, sporting events and extracurriculars.

Such restrictions on regular activities and socializing may sound familiar to many at the moment, given the pandemic Canada and other countries around the world are currently dealing with.

"A virus has struck," said reporter Heather Robinson, when explaining the situation at Mount Allison University to viewers at home. "So violent it leaves the infected with vomiting, diarrhea, and a low-grade fever."

Food poisoning suspected

Many students had signs on their dorm rooms to advise others whether they were ill or not. (The National/CBC Archives)

"Josh was looking horrible," a student was heard saying as he stood talking less than a metre from a classmate at the Sackville, N.B., institution.

Hand-lettered whiteboard signs on dormitory doors advised passersby of the health status of their occupants, including "sick" and "still kickin', no plague here."

"I was upstairs playing a poker game with some friends," said Kirk Godin. "I felt really nauseated and I felt like vomiting, and I had to cut the game short."

At first, university officials blamed the illness — which had then struck "at least 100 people" — on food poisoning.

But within six days, it was clear something else was stalking the campus population.

"There's been something of an outbreak of a Norwalk-type virus," said Stephen McClatchie, a university spokesman. "That's the suspicion."

'Waiting for the inevitable'

Even as the virus spread, students gathered in the cafeteria, in dorm rooms and hallways. (The National/CBC Archives)

According to further reporting by CBC, the culprit was confirmed as the norovirus, another name for Norwalk, on Oct. 18.

"It's spreading person to person like wildfire," said Robinson, as four young people were seen congregating in a dorm room and six others passed through a narrow hallway. 

Landon Braverman was one of the first to be hit with the illness.

"The honest truth is that when you're in close quarters like this you never know," he said. "You're waiting for the inevitable."

Stopping the spread

The university sent a questionnaire to students via email in an apparent effort to isolate the source of the virus. (The National/CBC Archives)

The school, which had been established in 1839, took steps to clamp down on the virus by cancelling "all classes, sporting events and extracurricular activities," said the reporter.

It had also emailed a questionnaire asking students to describe their symptoms, and cleaning staff were doing "extra cleaning to disinfect everything."

A cleaner could be seen wiping down cafeteria tables as two students ate a meal side-by-side behind her.

"People even have to sanitize before going into the cafeteria," said Robinson, as a person used a shared pump of hand sanitizer.

'I'm scared'

A woman wearing a protective mask on campus said she didn’t want to get sick. (The National/CBC Archives)

"I'm scared to get the Norwalk virus, because it's passing to everybody," said a young woman in a mask. "I really don't want to get sick."

According to the Globe and Mail, "more than 300 students" at Mount Allison became ill with the virus. 

The student population numbered roughly 2,200 as of 2002.

"The university is not under quarantine," said Robinson. "These are voluntary measures."

In the interests of containing the virus, the university was asking people to "stay put." But it apparently wasn't working.

"Already people have started to leave for home, raising fears about the virus spreading to other communities," said the reporter as she signed off.

Subsequent reporting by CBC just five days later described a Norwalk outbreak at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.