Gym becomes dining hall at Ursinus College after mystery illness sickens 100 students

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The athletic center at Ursinus College is serving as a makeshift cafeteria Thursday, after at least 100 students were sickened. (WPVI)

The athletic center at Ursinus College is serving as a makeshift cafeteria Thursday, after at least 100 students were sickened and the school voluntarily shut down its dining hall.

Health officials are still working to determine what caused the outbreak at the school in Collegeville, Montgomery County.

Several students reported feeling ill Tuesday night. By Wednesday afternoon, dozens had showed up at the school's medical offices with symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain.

The school says it knows of 100 students who were sickened. Twenty-two students were treated at local hospitals or urgent care centers.

"We are taking this matter seriously and are actively investigating the potential cause of this illness to determine whether it is foodborne or transmitted by person-to-person contact. We cannot yet confirm the cause," the school said in a statement.

School officials say most, if not all, of the sickened students reported eating dinner Tuesday night at Wismer Dining Hall on campus. So they made the decision to voluntarily close the dining hall for the duration of the investigation.

Health officials say that doesn't necessarily mean that tainted food was the source of the outbreak. But the school did temporarily close the dining hall for a thorough cleaning and disinfecting.

"Additionally, we are prioritizing cleaning in residential and common areas," school officials say.

School officials released a statement Wednesday night thanking community restaurants and local businesses who have partnered with the university to serve students while the cafeteria is temporarily shut down.

The statement reads in part:

Beginning at 7:30 a.m. tomorrow at the lobby of the Floy Lewis Bakes Athletics Center, Ursinus will partner with Wawa and Wegman's to offer students a grab-and-go breakfast that will be served by faculty, staff and volunteers. Lunch will begin at 11:30 in the same location, when Ursinus, Wawa and the Collegeville Italian Bakery will be on hand to support the students," a statement released by the school says.

That follows an evening in which five area restaurants welcomed Ursinus students for dinner: the Collegeville Italian Bakery, The Pizza Stop, Rocco's, Franco's Pizza Family Restaurant and Marzellas Pizzaria.

The college says it is collaborating with the Montgomery County Health Department.

"Ursinus' first priority is the health and well-being of our students," said President Brock Blomberg. "We will continue to work closely with officials from the Department of Health and follow their recommendations. In addition, Ursinus couldn't be more grateful for the outpouring of support it has received from the surrounding community to help us support our students."

Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Interim Medical Director of the Montgomery County Health Department, says, "I encourage any students or staff experiencing symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pain to be particularly careful about dehydration and to seek medical care."

Ursinus College Medical Director Dr. Paul Doghramji says they'll know for sure by the end of the week if this was a foodborne illness or passed person to person.

The good news is that most of those who fell ill are already showing signs of recovery.

Dr. Doghramji tells us, "At this point we're doing quite well. All of the students are being managed properly, and we believe that over the next 24 to 48 hours it'll all be gone."

The school is also disinfecting all residence halls and high-trafficked areas as a precaution.

At this point, anyone else who gets sick is urged to call the school's wellness center or campus security at 610-409-3333.
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