Postmedia News | 12/01/15 | Last Updated: 12/01/15 6:43 PM ET
By Robert Hiltz
Normally, when people walk out of one of Chris Jones’ speeches, he assumes it is because people don’t like what he’s saying.
But when people stared leaving in the middle of the Esquire magazine writer’s keynote address at a student journalism conference Saturday in Victoria, it was a sign of something much, much worse.
Severe gastrointestinal discomfort, to be delicate.
More than 50 of the almost 360 delegates at the Canadian University Press conference at the Harbour Towers Hotel and Suites — along with Jones — were stricken by what the Vancouver Island Health Authority called a “Norwalk-like virus,” sending 11 people to hospital suffering from the effects of dehydration.
“If you told me I puked out of my ears, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Jones said of his experience in the middle of the night — what he called “20 minutes of ultraviolence.”
“I think I got off super easy. There are kids who are there who were puking last night and are still puking today,” Jones said from the Vancouver International Airport on Sunday.
The event organizers were forced to cancel an evening gala event and awards ceremony for the assembled delegates because of the number of people getting sick — some of them while they were on a bus leaving the hotel for the gala.
“My speech ended probably around 9:30 and that’s when I heard about the first people (getting sick), and by 11 p.m. (the hotel) was just mayhem,” Jones said.
VIHA spokeswoman Suzanne Germain said the students affected by the illness will be in for a rough ride over the next few days — but they weren’t in any mortal danger.
“You may wish you were dead, but it’s not going to kill you,” Germain said.
She said the symptoms typically associated with the norovirus — namely, vomiting and diarrhea — had shown up in about 50 of the attendees from universities around the country. While they weren’t able to definitively say the illness affecting the conference delegates was norovirus — also known as Norwalk — all signs pointed to it.
“It’s classic symptoms of Norwalk,” Germain said. “It’s walking like a duck, it’s talking like a duck so we’re pretty sure it’s Norwalk.”
Emma Godmere, CUP national bureau chief, said 11 students went to hospital to receive fluids and medication, but all were promptly released. Only one had to be taken by ambulance, she said.
Godmere said that conference attendees who were showing signs of infection were urged to stay in their hotel rooms to prevent spreading the virus any further.
“Some people who are feeling well are heading back to their papers and home cities,” Godmere said.
She said the hotel was helping the infected to make arrangements to stay in the hotel past the scheduled end of the conference on Sunday.
Health officials and paramedics were called to the Harbour Towers hotel Saturday night to provide assistance. Anyone affected by the virus was told to stay in their hotel rooms and drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration — one of the dangers of the norovirus.
Despite the onslaught of infection, Godmere said the event was an overall success.
“Luckily, yesterday was our last day of workshops and speakers, so I’m kind of thankful it didn’t happen earlier in the conference, otherwise people would have missed some of these great sessions and speakers,” she said.
The spread of the virus also meant that CUP officials had to cancel the organization’s planned annual general meeting Sunday.
Norovirus is highly contagious and is transmitted through fecal matter and through the air.
Germain said there should be no need for anyone that is infected to go to the emergency room over worries the virus would spread throughout the hospital population.
The VIHA spokeswoman said health officials were expected to return to the hotel to follow up with the infected.
VIHA suspects a visitor to the hotel already had the virus, which likely spread once in contact with so many people in such a confined space.
With files from the Victoria Times Colonist