In late February, Deerfield’s Director of Medical Services Dr. Bryant Benson announced that the Health Center had identified a suspected case of tuberculosis (TB) on campus.
The Health Center soon sent the student to a hospital, which confirmed their diagnosis. The patient received treatment there and eventually fully recovered.
Dr. Benson conveyed in follow-up announcements, emails, and meetings with faculty and staff, that there was no need for panic.
He said that, although the disease has an “outsized historical and cultural reputation,” it is difficult to contract, requiring prolonged proximity to a symptomatic infectee, and it is very treatable.
This incident prompted a diligent response from the Academy, who contacted the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) to launch an epidemiological investigation and isolate any further cases of TB.
Dr. Andy Tibbs led the MDPH as he and his team met with faculty and Health Center staff, inspected various buildings, and conducted several interviews to determine which community members required screening.
Over three days, nurses collected the blood of over 150 students, staff, and faculty members to test for TB. The Health Center sent that blood to the MDPH lab for testing.
The results, relayed to the Health Center, came back negative for all samples. Another round of screenings is set to take place on either April 22 or April 29.
“The testing process was very seamless,” said Alex Alijani ‘19. “A nurse began drawing blood and, within 10 to 15 minutes, I was able to leave. I myself was not worried about contracting the disease.”
Christopher Gergis ‘22, who was selected for testing, noted that he was initially anxious.
“I was a little nervous about Dr. Benson’s announcement—I didn’t know what to expect. All I heard was ‘shot’ and ‘TB.,’” he explained. “Soon, though, I found out that TB is not very contagious and was relieved.”
He also spoke about others’ reactions, and said that his friends were not overly concerned, either.
“When I told them I was going to be screened, my friends expressed very similar attitudes. Most of their responses included some facetious comment about staying away from me,” he said.
This calm understanding of the disease among community members stems from an effective communication campaign, organized by Dr. Benson.
“Dr. Benson dispelled any potential for concern, based on how he communicated things, and, as a parent of a current student, I found his message very reassuring,” Deerfield nurse and parent Ms. Linnea Constant remarked. “For those who were initially concerned, education was key.”
“There were a few phone calls from understandably concerned parents,” Dr. Benson reported. “I told them what I told the students: tuberculosis is a tough disease to catch and is very treatable.”
Symptoms of TB include unexplained weight loss, often bloody coughs, and night sweats that only show themselves in the presence of an immunodeficiency.
The disease can only be passed on through prolonged exposure to a person with TB, as the bacteria is only transferred through the air. Ergo, the possibility of a school-wide shutdown is highly unlikely.
“We have never shut down and probably will not do so in the future, though such a decision really depends on the circumstances,” Dr. Benson emphasized. “Deerfield once shut down for Hurricane Irene, but never for concerns over health on campus.”
Ms. Constant also believes that current Health Center policy is sufficient to counter most, if not all, challenges to the community’s health.
“We at the Health Center meet every need head-on, just as we usually would,” she said. “There are times when all of our beds are full. The health staff simply steps up its game.”
If the worst-case scenario ever happened, however, Dr. Benson noted that Deerfield would likely follow the shutdown model of Northfield Mount Hermon, one of very few boarding schools that had previously closed their doors over health concerns.
During the 2017-18 school year, they had given students a day-long, on-campus break from classes and activities, because such a large portion of students were ill.
Even though this concern has largely passed, the Health Center continues to promote ways to stay healthy on campus and to combat campus illnesses. So far, students and faculty alike have done a good job keeping sickness at bay, despite the cold and flu season’s influence.
“Looking at the historical gravity of TB, I knew there would be a visceral response, but people handled the news well. We prepared for the worst and hoped for the best, in terms of response and health of the student body,” Dr. Benson concluded. “We’ve now witnessed the best-possible outcome. We can only hope to keep it that way.”