As of Tuesday, 15 cases of mumps have been confirmed on campus, said Dr. Lynne Deane, the director of the Student Health Center. Tests administered to other students are still being processed, she said.
In total, 39 students have been tested for the virus since January, Deane said. Mumps is a communicable viral illness and typically carries symptoms like fever, head and body aches, tiredness and swollen or tender glands in the jaw, according to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) Web site.
The first case on campus was confirmed in January, but the next two cases weren’t confirmed until the week before Spring Break, Deane said. Throughout March, Richmond has been providing preventative suggestions to students and parents via email.
Testing for mumps requires blood and saliva samples, and the blood test can take weeks to analyze and sometimes offers contradictory results to the saliva sample, Deane said.
The VDH considers three instances of mumps in the span of 25 days an outbreak, said Brian Eckert, Richmond’s director of media and public relations. As more tests are confirmed, it complicates the process of tracing a potential source of exposure, Deane said.
This rise in potential infections, called suspect cases, makes new tests difficult to confirm. “Students want me to reassure them that they don’t have mumps, but I can’t do that,” Deane said.
The virus is most contagious in the two days before and the five days after the onset of symptoms, Deane said. “This means you could be around infected people this weekend who haven’t shown any symptoms of mumps yet,” said Dr. Parham Jaberi, the VDH Henrico director.
Suspect cases are defined by “connection in time and space,” Jaberi said. This means that if someone has been on campus during the month of March and is displaying symptoms indicative of mumps, they are considered a suspect case, he said.
“Unfortunately it’s a fairly contagious illness,” Jaberi said. “It can be spread by talking, coughing and sneezing, so the best thing the University can do is to isolate people,” he added.
According to the health center, if a student is determined to be acutely ill they are recommended to be isolated.
Jaberi estimated that 150 students could eventually acquire the virus, a rough estimate derived from the fact that the vaccine is only 95% effective. “We feel that up to 5% and possibly more of the student body may be at risk of becoming ill,” Jaberi said. How well students isolate themselves and how quickly they are tested could impact the rate and extent of infection, he said.
Thus far, all students who have been recommended for isolation have gathered in the North Court Blue Room or in their personal off-campus residences, Eckert said. The university has recommended students who live off-campus to stay in their rooms and wear a mask in common areas. The Fiji Lodge is also prepared for isolated students but has not yet been used, Eckert said.
“We’re not quarantining anyone,” Eckert said. “I’ve heard that word being used but that’s not what is going on.”
One Westhampton College student who was isolated said: “I asked multiple times about staying in my off-campus house and wearing a mask when I went in common areas, but was told that was definitely not an option. My options were isolation on campus, to go home or to go to a hotel.” Two days later she was contacted and told that she could return to her off-campus house.
Junior Richard Arnett said he was permitted to isolate himself in his off-campus residence. “Originally they said that I either needed to go home or isolate on campus,” he said. “Most students live off campus with a bunch of people, but since I only live with two people I think that may have had a factor in their decision.”
The isolation period lasts for five days after students have demonstrated symptoms. During this phase, the virus is more contagious, Deane said.
The worst part of isolation was the body aches, Arnett said. “I couldn’t even get out of bed some days because it was so painful,” he said. “I’ve never had pain like that.”
Once a student has been tested for the mumps, the health center contacts the deans’ offices. The deanery then notifies the student’s professors and provides those students in on-campus isolation with meals.
Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, spoke at a faculty meeting to inform professors about the situation and how to proceed: “Students should not be going to class if they have mumps,” Bisese said, “And our faculty understands that.”
The cluster of mumps outbreaks has not been limited to Richmond. Loyola University, Maryland, has seen at least 12 cases of mumps arise in the past month, according to CBS news Baltimore.
The Richmond and state health departments are coordinating to provide information to the Centers for Disease Control, so that a genetic analysis of the specific virus can be compared to other strains, Jaberi said. “No direct links have been identified at this time,” he said.
Analyzing the genetics of the virus can help link it to other outbreaks, and to determine if the current Mumps Measles and Rubella (MMR) vaccinations cover the strain, Jaberi said.
The New England Journalism of Medicine has recently released a study suggesting that just because a strain is covered by the vaccination doesn’t mean that vaccinated persons are immune to it.
“There are only six full-time students on the university campus who have not been immunized with the MMR vaccination at least once,” Deane said. “The VDH is now considering the benefits of administering added doses on campus, and I expect they will reach a decision soon.” The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not approve administering a third vaccination.
Deane has been in daily contact with epidemiologists in the VDH to establish what specific symptoms need to be shown to render testing.
“As of Tuesday, the health center will continue to test patients with obvious mumps symptoms, and patients with respiratory symptoms who have had close contact with known or suspected cases,” Deane said.
“We have some plans in our books that we might go to if it gets to a certain point, but we don’t expect that to happen,” Eckert said. “School cancellations or closing has not even been a topic of conversation. We just don’t expect that it will ever reach that point,” Eckert said.
Going forward, the university is prepared to take the situation in stride and to adhere to recommendations from the state health department, Deane said. “Because there is such a long incubation period, this could be going on all semester,” she added.
Contact reporter Clay Helms at firstname.lastname@example.org