Preparing for H1N1 on College Campuses

September 14, 2009

H1N1 presents a real risk to college campuses this fall and developing an effective emergency response plan is critical to effectively handling an outbreak. During my tenure at American University, I oversaw emergency preparedness planning for the SARS pandemic, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon, Anthrax exposure, the D.C. Sniper, and the discovery of U.S. military toxic weapons on campus.

Based on my past experience, I had the opportunity to share a few pointers for colleges on handling H1N1 with The Greenville News:

Upstate colleges see few swine flu cases
Prevention takes center state as some Southern schools report spike in disease
Liv Osby
Greenville News
September 14, 2009

Swine flu has been sweeping through the nation’s college campuses in recent weeks with a spike in the Southeast, but most Upstate colleges are reporting just a handful of cases — at least so far.

There were nearly 5,000 new cases of flu at schools reporting to the American College Health Association the week ending Sept. 4.

Most cases were in the eight-state Southern region with the bulk in Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and North Carolina, according to ACHA, which surveys 236 colleges nationwide.

South Carolina schools reported flu, too, but it’s been slower to come to the Upstate.

Clemson University, with 17,000 students, had only about 120 cases last week, said George Clay, director of student health services.

Wofford College just started classes Sept. 7, but reported a couple of cases among its 1,400 students, said Elizabeth Wallace, director of health services.

“They haven’t been cultured for H1N1, but we’re treating them as such,” she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says virtually all flu circulating in the country now is Novel H1N1, also called swine flu.

“I don’t know what number of the college students that have been reported to have influenza in the past couple of weeks clearly have the 2009 H1N1 virus,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “But right now, if a person has influenza-like illnesses, the chances are good it’s the 2009 strain of the virus.”

Furman University, with 2,600 students, has had 17 suspected cases since classes began Aug. 26, spokesman Vince Moore said.

“Overall, it’s been very light and sporadic, and all the cases have been very mild,” he said.

The 15,000-student Greenville Technical College has had just five cases since classes started Aug. 17, spokeswoman Becky Mann said.

“We’re not sure if that’s the entire number. It could be that someone would be out and not mention why,” she said. “But we think only a handful of students have been affected.”

Eight of 2,254 students at North Greenville University have had the flu since school opened Aug. 19, though none in the last week, said LaVerne Howell, director of public relations.

Seven cases have been reported at Presbyterian College, said spokesman Hal Milam. Classes began Aug. 25 at the Clinton college, which has 1,800 students, he said.

Anderson University, with 2,280 students, had two cases at the beginning of the school year but nothing since, said spokesman Barry Ray.

And Bob Jones University hasn’t had any cases of flu at all since school started Sept. 2, spokesman Brian Scoles said.

“We have about 3,900 students, and the majority live in dorms,” he said. “So far, we’ve been fortunate.”

All the cases at Upstate schools have been mild so far, spokesmen said. And the colleges have plans in place to reduce the spread of the virus, including the ability to quarantine students if necessary.

Clemson is asking sick students to isolate themselves until they’re better and advising healthy students to wash their hands often, cover their coughs and avoid behaviors that might transmit infection, such as sharing beverages, Clay said.

“We have a strategy designed to keep the growth in the number of cases to the lowest level possible,” he said. “And we’re encouraging the faculty to not penalize students who miss class because of the flu — the idea being it helps students to isolate themselves because going to class may infect others.”

All the North Greenville students were able to go home to recuperate, Howell said, though the school has the ability to quarantine up to 12 students at a time if necessary.

“Once they’re tested, their parents are called, and they go home,” he said. “And they’re not permitted back in the student population until they’re better.”

Wallace said Wofford has peppered the campus with hand sanitizer and asks infected students to wear masks until they can get home.

“Our focus has been prevention,” she said. “Hopefully, we can contain it and symptoms will continue to be mild.”

Presbyterian also asks sick students to go home, Milam said.

“And in case they live far out of state and can’t go home — we have some international students too — we would isolate them, ask them to stay in their rooms,” he said.

He added that common surfaces, such as apparatus in the fitness center, are regularly cleaned.

Ray said that as soon as the Anderson University students became sick, they were sent home and the school began to manage the situation, educating students about preventing flu and setting up hand sanitizer stations all over campus.

“We have not seen any additional cases since then,” he said. “But we’re being vigilant. I don’t think anybody’s assuming that we’re done with it.”

Schuchat said the college outbreaks were expected based on what happened in the Southern Hemisphere and because the flu seems to be targeting those 24 and younger. She added that some of the schools were well-prepared for the outbreaks.

Dr. Benjamin Ladner, the retired president of American University in Washington, and now a Greenville resident, who headed AU through the SARS scare and other emergencies, says most schools probably aren’t as prepared as they could be.

“I’m betting there are schools and colleges that feel pretty protected, because it hasn’t shown up yet,” he said. “My advice would be to go the extra mile and talk to people going through it, observe mistakes they made, and put together some sort of briefing document so people are not simply reacting. You really do have to practice.”

Schuchat said though many communities have not seen much flu yet this year, it’s still early.

“Our principle prediction now is that it is going to be a busy and long season,” she said, “and we need to be prepared for the next several months and also the spring.”

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2 Responses to “Preparing for H1N1 on College Campuses”

  1. annymorris said

    Actually, as far as I know there were registered only 160 lethal cases all over the world. I think that all this rash around the swine flu is pretty much exaggerated.

  2. Good info in this article. I am a student at a university and I often think about the H1N1 flu and if I’m taking the correct precautions.

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