University of Illinois meningitis deaths: Another time when mass vaccinations were needed

ByChuck Goudie and Barb Markoff, Christine Tressel and Ross Weidner WLS logo
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Another time mass vaccinations were needed in Illinois
Two students died within days of each other in 1991, setting off a battle for health and safety on University of Illinois' flagship campus.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Nearly 30 years ago, the death of a University of Illinois student from bacterial meningitis scared the campus community.

The year was 1991 - decades before COVID. At U of I there was a different threat, a threat that killed a second Illini student within days from meningitis disease.

As fear turned to frenzy, university officials huddled with the Centers for Disease Control on how to handle the health crisis. They struggled with whether they should quarantine the campus, send students home, or vaccinate.

"After the second student died, it became very real, and that was my second semester of my freshman year in 1991," Andrea Darlas, Senior Director of Constituent Engagement at the University of Illinois told the I-Team.

The world was pre-occupied with Operation Desert Storm; the first Gulf War that had just launched a few weeks earlier.

But at U of I, when two students died within days of each other from meningitis infections; there would soon be a battle for health and safety on Illinois' flagship campus, beginning with antibiotics for thousands of students who may have been exposed to the highly contagious and potentiality dangerous infection.

"We were all just a little cautious. I would maybe even call it you know the 90s version of social distancing, you know, sitting every other desk, because we did realize how contagious it was once we heard about it and it started to spread," said Darlas.

Within the year, eight students got sick and a total of three died. U of I was advised by the federal government to vaccinate students. Forty thousand doses of Menomune were purchased from a lab in Philadelphia for about $150,000.

Dr. Brin Schuler is a staff physician at U of I's McKinley Health Center. She was a freshman when the mass vaccinations happened during a three-day period at the Armory.

"We got in line and there were, I don't know, five or six lines. And you rolled up your sleeve and bared your arm, and they didn't have a needle, like they do now, they just had the air guns...they air shot the vaccine into your arm, and then you went to the next person and you got a sticker and band aid, and that was it," recalled Dr. Schuler.

"It was almost surreal, when we were in line to get that vaccine, I truly remember standing in the line waiting a long time and being very scared, not only because of what we were doing, we were in line for this mass vaccination so we wouldn't get meningitis, which was very contagious," said Darlas.

Nearly 19,000 students received the vaccine.

Now, almost 30 years later, it is a pandemic disease that Dr. Schuler tends to, caring for COVID patients on campus. She is hopeful with vaccines arriving this week at U of I.

"Everybody who wants to get vaccinated will be up for it at that point," said Dr. Schuler.

U of I says it has now done more than one million COVID tests since July. The 7-day positivity rate is .2%, a small fraction of what the numbers look like in the rest of the state.

The university is working with local health officials to figure out how to facilitate vaccinations on campus once they become more widely available.