Fear and vomiting in Victoria

Health officials check rooms of unhealthy occupants. (Tom Bateman/AQ)

The untold story of how a horrific virus outbreak turned the Canadian University Press conference into the zombie apocalypse

The gala
“Are you guys all feeling okay?”It was Jason Schreurs, co-coordinator of the conference. He’s always looked a bit older than a university student, but he soon started to sound like it too. He told us at least 25 conference delegates had come down with some mysterious flu. He said we shouldn’t go to the gala dance that capped off the Canadian University Press conference if we were feeling the slightest bit off.

“Yeah, okay, Dad – sure I won’t go out on the last night of the conference,” I thought to myself.

In the end, all but one of us ended up not going to the gala, but it wasn’t because of Jason’s warning.

Karissa Donkin, our news editor, texted us on her way back from the gala, only about an hour after she had left the hotel. Apparently, the University of Victoria had kicked them out because everyone was projectile vomiting all over the dance floor. What the crap? (Oh, and that too.) In the meantime, people were getting sick on the bus, on the back of people’s heads, out the windows. And then when they got back to the hotel, they were getting sick in rain gutters, stairwells and hallways. Oh, and our two editors who “weren’t feeling their best” were also sick.

Zombie apocalypse, anyone?

May Day’s here What the hell kind of contagious, violent sickness was this? Conference organizers were in touch with Vancouver Island Health who said it might be norovirus, also known as Norwalk. Uh, Nor-who?

All we knew was two of our editors were already sick – and they couldn’t stop getting sick. It was like the beginning of a horror movie when you try to forget about the zombie apocalypse that’s just outside your door.

Conference organizers breathed through regulated masks and wore sky-blue surgeon’s gloves.

“It was like they were dealing with an infectious disease that was going to kill,” Matt Tidcombe, our sports editor, told me.

He was one of the lucky ones who didn’t get sick.

“You would go down to the lobby of the hotel to find it completely empty. It was peaceful, but at the same time, very disturbing.”

After we all decided to go to bed, four of our girls took Gravol to knock themselves out so they could just ignore the virus altogether.

After talking to her boyfriend on the phone and reassuring him she was okay, Julia Whalen, our arts editor, brushed her teeth. When she opened the door afterwards, Lauren Bird, our features editor, was hunched over a blue recycling bin.

Slowly, she looked up at Julia.

“Mayday,” she said.

The AQ team met CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti before succumbing to the Norovirus a few days later. From left: Alyssa Mosher, Shane Fowler, Amy MacKenzie, Julia Whalen, Anna Maria Tremonti, Lauren Bird, Shane Magee, Karissa Donkin and Laura Brown. Absent from photo: Tom Bateman and Matt Tidcombe. (Submitted)

Death…

By the next morning, six out of 10 of our staff members were sick, including me.

“Why won’t it stop?” I remember thinking as a hunched over the toilet in the boys’ room (also known as “The AQ sick room”), eyes closed, ears plugged. I was officially one of them. Man, I felt like death. But that was nothing.

“I remember actually thinking, ‘This is it,’” Lauren recalled a few days after the outbreak.

One editor vomited out of his nose, another had to see paramedics because he was throwing up blood.

Amy MacKenzie, another senior writer, held the record for bathroom trips. Ten in five hours. Chest muscles ached because of constant convulsions. People had about six to seven minutes to relax before they either vomited, or, well, you know.

So they started making plans.

“We decided all poop matters deserved the toilet, and should that be occupied, the sink and bathtub could be employed (if all the person was throwing up was liquids),” Julia told me. “Otherwise, the recycling bin was to be used.”

Other rooms had code words. Shane Magee and Tom Bateman were pretty proud when they came up with “North” and “South” to describe the violent acts. Then there were those times when “North” and “South” didn’t quite cut it: “East! East!” Tom recalled Shane shouting at him.

Shane Fowler, one of our senior writers, decided it would be a great idea to roll around in Shane Magee’s bed after he had spent several sick hours in it. Shane Fowler got sick 12 hours later.

And then there was Laura Brown, our managing editor. Poor Laura was left to deal with the newspaper we had to get to the printer Sunday night. And she’d agreed to do several interviews with the national and New Brunswick media.

And then it happened.

“We lost Laura,” Shane Fowler said after returning from the so-called healthy room and hearing her curse and shout as that night’s soup came rushing out. She spoke with CBC’s Newsworld on Skype at 3 a.m. She wasn’t sleeping anyway, so why not? To avoid an accident on live television, she decided to down a bottle of Vitamin Water in order to force herself to throw up before the interview.

Who does that?

…is still Tweet-able

Twitter was our main mode of communication. Whether it was between conference organizers and the sick or the sick and healthy, we lived on Twitter for those few days. Emma Godmere, the national bureau chief for CUP, took on lead contact role; she was in touch with Vancouver Island Health and relayed their information to the rest of us who were stuck in our rooms.

Twitter is how we found out it was probably norovirus and not food poisoning; Twitter is where we heard about potential Gatorade and toast runs by the organizers; Twitter is where media outlets in Fredericton got in touch with staff members for interviews; and Twitter is where CUP delegates – the healthy ones – started doing their own reporting, investigating the sick numbers that seemed too low.

Andy Veilleux, sports editor for The Muse at Memorial University in Newfoundland, is still trying to figure out the final numbers. According to the latest reports he got from 51 papers and CUP staff members, 151 people were sick from norovirus. His initial number Sunday morning was a mere 60. Incredible. Twitter was also where things like #archipukeago (the theme of the conference was “Archipelago”) and #norwalkingdead were created. Zombie apocalypse, anyone?

A healthy ending Most of us ended up taking the same, long trek we had originally planned. We’d cab the two blocks from the hotel to the bus station, bus to the ferry terminal, take the ferry to Vancouver, bus to the airport and then hop on another bus to Seattle. Sleep. Then we’d wake up early for our flight to Minneapolis, then to Detroit and then to Bangor. Then we’d sleep some more. Then, finally, on Wednesday, two-and-a-half days later, we’d drive back to Fredericton.

It would be long for everyone who still wasn’t feeling 100 per cent. But it would be especially long for Laura, who had first gotten sick only 12 hours earlier. “There’s no bathroom on this bus,” I remember her saying as we boarded the one to the Vancouver ferry.

You could say we’re more comfortable with each other now. The conversations we’ve had are disturbing, to say the least. I’m sure the people travelling around us – and darted their eyes in our direction – really appreciated our choice of words. Describing exactly what was in your vomit? Really, guys? Or as Julia said at last week’s story meeting, “None of us can ever date.”

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