Updated: 10:37 p.m.
Director of Yale Health Paul Genecin notified the Yale community Friday afternoon that an undergraduate student has likely contracted meningitis.
According to Genecin’s email, a student was admitted to Yale-New Haven Hospital Thursday evening with symptoms indicating bacterial meningococcal disease. A close friend of the patient said she was told by clinicians that the patient has been contagious since Jan. 26 and was brought to Yale Health by their suitemates after being sick for some time. Genecin, Chief of Student Health Andrew Gotlin and other medical leaders were called into an emergency meeting this afternoon at 3:15 p.m. to discuss the emergency situation.
“The University has activated its emergency response protocol,” Genecin said in his email, which was also forwarded to parents and guardians of Yale College students by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, meningitis occurs when the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord — the meninges — become inflamed. This inflammation is normally caused by a bacterial or viral infection of the surrounding fluid but can also be triggered by physical injury, cancer or the consumption of certain drugs.
“Although meningitis is contagious, it is not as easily spread as germs that cause the common cold or the flu,” Genecin’s email noted. “The bacteria are not spread by casual contact or by breathing the air where a person with meningococcal disease has been. Only those who have come into close, extended contact with a person with bacterial meningitis are at risk of infection.”
According to one of the patient’s suitemates, the patient in question first experienced headaches and flu-like symptoms last week and subsequently stayed in bed for most of the time. However, after the student began vomiting yesterday evening, some of their suitemates took them to Yale Health.
“I didn’t know the diagnosis until about an hour before the campus-wide email,” said one student who has been in close contact with the patient but asked to remain anonymous to ensure the patient’s privacy. “We initially thought it was the flu.”
According to one student in Calhoun, the patient’s residential college, an email was sent to all students in the college that there would be a meeting about the patient at 7:30 p.m. Friday.
At the meeting, Genecin, Calhoun College Master Julia Adams and representatives from both the Chaplain’s Office and mental health and counseling services spoke with students about the patient’s condition and ways to prevent the spread of meningitis.
While the contents of the meeting remain confidential, one student who attended the meeting told the News the patient is currently in intensive care and the patient’s mother is at the hospital with them. The student, who wanted to remain anonymous to respect the patient’s privacy, said the patient’s mother thinks that their child is improving, or at the very least stabilizing.
Earlier Friday afternoon, the New Haven and Connecticut Departments of Health worked with Yale to track down students who may have had contact with the patient. These students were notified of their risk status roughly one hour before the campus-wide email was sent.
One security guard, who was sighted this afternoon at the entrance of the Yale Health Center at 55 Lock St. in front of a sign labeled “Student Antibiotic Clinic,” was directing those who had had contact with the student to the Moreson H. Kaplan Conference Center to be treated.
“I’m not supposed to talk about it, but students who need to follow this sign know who they are,” said the security guard, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Students who have been in close contact with the patient have been contacted by emergency services and offered one 500-milligram dose of Cipro, an antibiotic used to prevent meningitis among people who have been exposed to it.
At the antibiotic clinic, students are also being given bottles of water and leaflets highlighting symptoms, such as dizziness, seizures and a meningococcal rash, all of which they are being instructed to look out and seek medical attention for.
The patient, who lives in a suite of five but does not have a roommate, had their suite professionally cleaned Friday evening to limit the risk of infection, said one suitemate. However, Genecin emphasized that despite this, the disease is mostly spread through intimate contact — spending eight hours or more within three feet of an infected patient.
He said living in a close community environment is a risk factor for meningitis, and close contact with an infected patient for eight hours or more is usually the benchmark for being at risk of developing meningitis. Genecin also said meningitis can also be passed on through bodily fluids.
“People need to live their lives, but if there is a choice between taking a puff of someone’s cigarette or not, maybe you should not,” said Genecin, adding that hand washing is the most important public health measure students can take.
In a second email to the Yale community later Friday evening — which noted that the likelihood of the student having meningitis is “probable” — Genecin notified students of an emergency 24-hour helpline for students who want more information about meningitis. He also announced that there will be two more antibiotic clinics from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday at which students who have had close contact with the affected patient are invited to take a dose of Cipro.
In an interview with the News, Genecin emphasized that Cipro is safe, and that there are two alternatives to the antibiotic, if an individual is allergic. However, he also stressed that it is not a guarantee of safety.
“It isn’t a magic bullet, there isn’t a guarantee that when the Cipro wears off, a student won’t get the illness another way,” Genecin said, adding that Yale Health will be following up with students who have had close contact with the patient, even after they have been given the antibiotic.
Students interviewed were calm and optimistic about Yale’s ability to handle a possible meningitis outbreak.
“Until there are more outbreaks, there is no reason to be too concerned,” said one student in Calhoun. “I have faith that Yale Health and the administrators are taking enough preventative measures.”
Another Calhoun student, who does not know the patient and first heard about the potential meningitis case from the campus-wide email, said she was far less concerned about the likelihood of a meningitis outbreak and far more concerned about the student in hospital.
Even students who live with the patient are not alarmed by the potential for an outbreak. One suitemate said they are not worried about catching meningitis, but understands why others would be. They added that the nurse who spoke with her told her that unless they had been within five feet of the patient for more than eight hours, they are unlikely to be infected.
On Monday, Rhode Island health officials confirmed that a Providence College student, who had been vaccinated against the illness, was diagnosed with the illness. On Thursday night, officials confirmed the existence of a second probable case, the Providence Journal reported.
In 2013, seven Princeton students were diagnosed with meningitis, after the outbreak of a rare strain of the disease. One Drexel student, who had been in close contact with a Princeton student, later died of the illness.
While Genecin is unable to comment on the details of the individual patient’s case, he said that the majority of students who have been in close contact with the patient have now been given the antibiotic. He added that while there is a confidentiality law uniform across the country preventing doctors from discussing patients, what does vary is whether campus health services alert the entire campus when there is the potential for a meningitis outbreak.
Genecin said Yale Health thought it was best to send a campus-wide email because of the intimate nature of suite living arrangements and to prevent there being a cluster of meningitis cases.
“Where it varies from place to place is whether to send a notice out to all students. We chose to do that quickly as opposed to waiting it out,” he said.
The acute care department at Yale Health is open 24 hours every day.