Reporting from their temporary field office at the Rose Bowl, the Center for Disease Control confirmed this afternoon that the current outbreak Yersinia froshularia, better known by its common name “frosh plague”, has reached pandemic status, with over eight hundred students, faculty, and staff infected across all six academic divisions. “In a typical year, the seasonal flu is our biggest worry. But this disaster is something else,” said CDC field communication technician Olga Christian. “It’s the biggest outbreak of froshularia we’ve seen in the past sixty years.” In a statement to the entire campus community, Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics, warned that the current outbreak of frosh plague “is unparalleled in the Institute’s recent past” and urged everyone to “remain calm, collected, and healthy in the face of our current struggle.”
Prior to the current outbreak, which began approximately four weeks ago, the disease was previously reported on the Caltech campus in 2008. However, campus health officials, in collaboration with the CDC, had successfully prevented a full blown pandemic. “In the past, we’ve seen small clusters of cases, usually isolated to a particular laboratory, house, or even class,” said Eiko Brown, a nurse practitioner at the Caltech Student Health Center. “Those of us who were there will never forget the ACM95 incident of 2006.” (For the uninformed, this was the largest outbreak in recent history, infecting nearly one hundred students of the class in question.) “In the past, prudence has prevented large-scale escalation of the crisis. In the ACM95 outbreak, the outbreak never reached a critical infection threshold because the students weren’t going to class,” said Kerry Hanley, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Students.
Many have speculated about the cause of this year’s record-setting pandemic. “I think it has to do with the timing,” said Niraj Kumar, ’20. “The plague hit really early this year, so everyone got it while they were still going to class.” Professor Late Newis, a long-time instructor for freshman chemistry, concurred. “Typically, student attendance drops off exponentially after the two weeks. We’ve weathered past outbreaks through student and instructor apathy, but this year we got hit hard really early,” he said. Others showed more administrative reticence in interviews with the Torch. “At this point, it’s too early to speculate about causes and effects,” said CDC observational epidemiologist Fiona Ivankov. “We won’t be able to answer those questions for months or years—at least until the paper gets published.”
For now, CDC officials have taken strict action to contain the spread of the epidemic. “As they leave their dormitories or a classroom, all undergraduate and graduate students will be showered with a mixture of antimicrobial agents, including isopropyl alcohol,” announced Caltech administration in a campus-wide email. “Antimicrobial showers have proved immensely useful in containing epidemic disease,” noted one CDC spokesperson. However, not everyone is happy about the mandatory sprayings. “To be honest, it feels like an invasion of our privacy,” said Chen Xiulan, ’18. “I feel like my bodily autonomy is not being respected by the administration.” Other students, who wished to remain anonymous, reported fears that the spraying would negatively impact their health. Although CDC officials and Caltech administrators assured students that the antimicrobial agents have no deleterious effects, students have been required to sign liability waivers, which note that “antimicrobial sprays may contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, and other reproductive harm.” In response to these accusations, Dean Hanley defended the measure, noting that “without the antimicrobial sprays, we’d have to do the unthinkable: cancel classes.”
Symptoms of frosh plague include fever, chills, a heavy cough, and extended malaise lasting up to two weeks. Campus community members who are ill are reminded to seek medical attention, avoid contact with others, and stay home so that they don’t fall behind in their sets.