Students struggle with mystery finals week illness

One table with chairs in an outdoor area of Frary Dining Hall
Tables surround the entrance of Frary Dining Hall. (Anoushka Sameer • The Student Life)

On top of a surge in COVID-19 cases and stressful exams, some 5C students had another challenge on their plates last weekend — an unexplained illness that left them feeling nauseous, fatigued or otherwise awful.

Those who came down with symptoms speculated that their ailments may have had something to do with a stomach bug, norovirus, or food poisoning relating to having eaten at the dining halls.

A survey that students shared on Facebook and Yik Yak gained traction among Pomona College students, but cases of the stomach bug have been reported across the 5Cs, according to Frary Chef Manager Amanda Martinez. 

As of Dec. 16, the survey showed 37 Pomona students had reported symptoms of a stomach-bug after eating at the campus dining halls, with symptoms ranging from nausea and vomiting to body chills and fevers.  

“I don’t think I can emphasize how severe” the illness was, one anonymous respondent said. “[I’ve] never been this bad in my life.” 

Student Health Services has seen several students for “stomach flu/food poisoning” issues, according to The Claremont Colleges Services spokesperson Laura Muna-Landa, “but nothing that is substantive enough to identify a specific illness or trace to a specific source or cause of transmission.”

Martinez said Pomona Dining Services staff checked logs and didn’t discover any irregularities as to station temperatures or how long food was placed out.

For Ciannah Correa PO ‘22, “it was pretty horrible.”

 “I haven’t been able to eat or do much and wasn’t able to study or work on any finals effectively for almost 36 hours,” Correa said via email. “Probably the worst finals week experience in all my time at Pomona … definitely was horrible timing.”

With her recent bout with the bug, a Pomona student named Naomi wound up in urgent care as she struggled to keep down fluids. She also missed her flight home for winter break as a result.

Initial speculation had centered on a holiday-themed dinner served at Pomona’s Frank Dining Hall, but students began noting that they had come down with the bug earlier and after eating in other places.

Andrew Zhao PO ’22 ate at Frary Dining Hall Dec. 9, waking up in the middle of the following night with a fever, nausea, headache and loud coughing. He said a 7C Health doctor suggested it sounded like a viral infection.

“On the one hand, it’s somewhat relieving, but also somewhat scary to hear a bunch of people saying very eerily similar things about how they were feeling, like, ‘Oh, I’m feeling nauseous, and I’m running a fever,’” he said.

After lunch at Frank Dec. 10, a Pomona student named Isaac came down with a fever Saturday afternoon that left him vomiting and bedridden.

I will never eat the poke or sushi from the dining halls again,” he said.

Nate Dailey PO ’23 couldn’t pinpoint what exactly made him sick, but was missing in action all morning Dec. 10 after a volatile stomach took a turn for the worse.

I honestly have no clue what it was,” Dailey told TSL via email. “It sounds like others got it from different foods.” 

According to Dailey, he was one of many who experienced similar symptoms. 

“I’ve talked to lots of others who had the same experience. Some had it on different days and also at Frank. Really makes me wonder what it was that did it.”  

Logan Stouse PO ‘23 also experienced symptoms, and reiterated the illness’s widespread reach among students. 

 “I have one close friend who had something similar, and know of a lot of other folks around campus who aren’t people I interacted with closely,” Stouse said via email. 

To enter Frank and Frary, patrons are now expected to wash their hands in portable sinks outside the servery, Martinez said, adding case counts and the worry of a new COVID-19 variant also factored into the change. 

Some staff members also became ill with something “viral” or “gastrointestinal,” including some who hadn’t eaten on campus, she added, and none had tested positive for COVID-19 during routine tests last week, to her knowledge.

Although staff regularly sanitizes and disinfects the dining halls, Pomona did an extra cleaning in Frank and Frary last weekend, “because of the illnesses,” she said.

SHS continues to suggest good hygiene practices, according to Muna-Landa, including frequent hand-washing, using alcohol-based sanitizers and refraining from touching one’s mouth, nose or eyes. 

SHS closes Friday for the winter break, except for limited COVID-19 testing hours, but students will still have access to telehealth services through 7C Health.

“It’s so unfortunate that this is happening at this point in the semester,” Correa said. “It truly feels like a meme at this point.”

This story was last updated Dec. 17 at 3:35 p.m.

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