Virginia Health Department officials issued a letter to the University of Richmond Student Health Center and the Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness on Nov. 15 as part of an ongoing investigation of increased cases of skin and soft tissue infections (SSTI) and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) among students at the university.

The Henrico County Health Department, in cooperation with the State Department of Health, began the investigation of the Weinstein Center after interviews with affected Richmond students revealed that “the majority of them utilized the cardio area (elliptical machines) and strength training areas (dumbbells) in the recreation center,” according to the letter obtained by The Collegian.

MRSA is a type of bacteria that is resistant to many antibiotics, according to the CDC. Staph and MRSA can cause different problems ranging from skin infections to pneumonia or bloodstream infections. MRSA was responsible for 100,000 deaths in the United States in 2007. 

Students have not been notified of the investigation or its findings.

In the letter addressed to Lynne Deane, medical director at the student health center, and Tom Roberts, assistant vice president of recreation and wellness, the Health Department summarized the Nov. 10 investigation conducted by District Epidemiologist Laura Young and Regional Epidemiologist Angela West.

The letter included detailed results after officials tested various locations around the wellness center, including the dumbbells, ellipticals and mats. The Health Department officials also conducted “cleaning challenges” to test the effectiveness of certain cleaning methods on the levels of bacteria.

Bacteria levels above 1,000 RLU (red light units) indicate a “fail” and that the area needs to be thoroughly cleaned and re-tested. Levels of 501- 999 RLU indicate that “caution” is needed and the area needs to be cleaned. Anything below 500 RLU indicates acceptable levels.

The black mats tested at the wellness center had 2,423 RLU before the Health Department wiped the mat down. After the cleaning the area still had 1,019 RLU, a failing grade.

On a 7.5-pound yellow dumbbell near the studio upstairs, there were 3,083 RLU detected and 72 RLU after wiping, which indicates extremely high levels before cleaning and “safer” levels after cleaning.

“It is likely that dumbbells are not cleaned routinely by staff or users,” the letter said. “Some items, such as the dumbbells, are rarely cleaned, even though they are high-touch areas.”

The hand scanner at the entrance to the gym showed 839 RLU. Four other areas tested in the gym showed RLU results over 500.

“The Student Health Center reached out to us as they were seeing an increase in students with SSTI, some of whom had positive cultures for MRSA,” Young told The Collegian in an email. “Some of these students had positive cultures for MRSA from their SSTI site.”

The Student Health Center did not respond to requests for comment.

“In a high-use facility such as a fitness center, it’s not unusual to see these high levels, and the test did not confirm [that the] fitness center was any cause of SSTI or MRSA,” Roberts said. He also said that there had not been any new cases of MRSA in the past month.

The letter provided recommendations for environmental cleaning, infection control and the gym’s cleaning schedules. The recommendations also included a reminder that Purell wipes are not meant to clean equipment.

Roberts said that although many of the routine cleaning recommendations had already been completed on a daily basis, the wellness center was working with university facilities to clean the equipment better as well as more often.

“We plan to improve education of our staff and members,” Roberts said. “We have a training for all staff in January that we will be asking Virginia Health Department and the company we purchase cleaning supplies from to attend and discuss [the] importance of cleaning and how to properly clean.

"...there has not really been a lot of this kind of testing done in fitness centers, but the little that has been done shows that these numbers are not uncommon and some of these surfaces can be difficult to keep clean and keep [RLU] numbers low," he continued.

Facility staff interviewed by the Health Department said gym staff members cleaned equipment weekly and the fitness staff performed some other cleaning daily.

“Items that had high RLU readings, and those which are rarely cleaned by staff or users, will likely need to be cleaned several times by staff members in the course of one day before the microbial burden falls to acceptable levels,” the letter read.

The letter also encouraged the recreation center to use the then-approaching Thanksgiving holiday vacation time to “aggressively clean while the facility is not busy.” The university has not said whether said aggressive cleaning took place during the Thanksgiving break.

Young and Roberts both recommend that students who use the wellness center take the time to thoroughly clean any equipment they are using before and after use, as well as regularly wash their hands to prevent the spread of germs.

“Cleaning before will protect them from exposure and cleaning after will protect others and can help reduce the spread of bacteria and viruses,” Young said.

Studies have shown that MRSA can survive “for months (< 90 days) on some items and tends to survive the longest on items made of plastic and vinyl, particularly when there are sufficient skin cells and microbial load present (such as the dumbbells),” according to the letter.

On Nov. 11, the health center sent an email to students and faculty warning them about an outbreak of Adenovirus, a respiratory virus that has drastically increased the number of students seeking care at the Student Health Center.

Contact reporters Carney Judge at carney.judge@richmond.edu and Claire Comey at claire.comey@richmond.edu