Lesson in crisis communication: Painful norovirus infected 75 people at Victoria conference

Barf happens, and the newly converted are quick to cite lessons learned, but the challenge remains – how to get people to pay attention before the outbreak happens?

The Vancouver Sun reports the final two dozen university conference delegates left Victoria on Tuesday after days of battling a painful norovirus outbreak that is believed to have infected about 75 people.

About 370 delegates arrived in the city for a national Canadian University Press conference on Jan. 11.

The journalism convention quickly made national headlines on Sunday morning after the virus rapidly spread throughout the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites where they all stayed.

Those who were not infected — and some who were — made their way home Sunday, while the rest stayed an extra night or two waiting for their symptoms of vomiting, severe stomach pains and diarrhea to pass.

A shuttle bus took about 13 delegates to the Victoria Airport Tuesday morning with another five or six following them in the afternoon, according to university press staff.

Some students were reporting getting sick during their travels home and some even after they arrived. But with the worst behind them, delegates got back to classes and work.

“If anything, this entire conference, this entire situation, has been a lesson for us in terms of crisis communication,” said Emma Godmere, the CUP national bureau chief, who became a co-ordinator of all communication as information was sent out via Twitter.

We were all dressed up and people were vomiting everywhere #nash74: norovirus outbreak keeps students in Victoria

Student journalists sickened during the “Great Puking Debacle of Nash 74,” otherwise known as the Canadian University Press’s 74th National Conference (or “NASH”) in Victoria, B.C. remained under voluntary quarantine in their hotel rooms Monday because of a suspected outbreak of norovirus.

About 60 of the 360 delegates to the Canadian University Press’ annual NASH conference for student journalists, held at the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites, came down with flu-like symptoms Saturday night.

Amy Badry, one of 12 University of Calgary students attending the conference, told CBC News that during the quarantine, information was poorly communicated.

Badry said delegates were left to do their own research and call hospitals, all the while looking to Twitter for updates on the situation.

"The co-ordinators were unprepared for this, so it’s something to think about when an event like this happens," Badry said. "What is the best way to disseminate information to the people affected by it? And the best way is not through Twitter."

"We were all dressed up and running outside and people were just vomiting everywhere," she said.

Suzanne Germain of the Vancouver Island Health Authority said, "While we haven’t had it confirmed, we’re pretty sure its Norwalk virus given how it presented and developed. We suspect a student, or a few students, contracted this somehow — it takes one to two days to incubate — then they travelled to the meeting, and then it spread quite rapidly among the student group."

Maybe. Or maybe the students were sickened while eating at a location separate from the hotel.