Swine Flu Goes to College

UC, Xavier ramping up emergency plans

Sep 16, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Maybe mom’s constant advice about always washing your hands isn’t so annoying after all.

College students typically have a lot on their mind around this time of year. With the 2009 fall quarter already underway at Xavier University (XU) and beginning next week at the University of Cincinnati (UC), most students are in clutch mode trying to acquire their text books and school supplies, get their schedules set straight, find their way around campus and secure at least one party house where they can put beer bongs to good use.

But in addition to the usual tasks, students this year have one more thing to be concerned about — and it could be deadly.

UC students and staff received an e-mail Aug. 24 from University Health Services informing the campus community of two confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus, also know as “swine flu.” As of a week ago, the number of confirmed cases had doubled.

Also, Xavier confirmed seven on-campus cases of H1N1 in the last two weeks, according to Deb Del Valle, an XU spokeswoman. Northern Kentucky University (NKU) had two confirmed cases.

Additionally, 110 probable cases were reported at Xavier, while 69 probable cases were reported at Miami University in Oxford.

In fact, the regional experience with swine flu so far suggests the median age-range for infection is young adults who are 19 or 20 years old.

By the end of August, the swine flu strain had killed 522 people nationally and hospitalized about 8,000 people.

Even more cases are likely to surface in coming months if the predictions of President Barack Obama’s science advisers are accurate.

These advisers report that the pandemic may “produce infection of 30-50 percent of the U.S. population this fall and winter, with symptoms in approximately 20-40 percent of the population (60-120 million people), more than half of whom would seek medical attention.”

The report also indicates the plausibility of up to 1.8 million people being admitted to hospitals and a death toll of up to 90,000.

Given such a grim outlook, many students are wondering if they will be required to add respiratory masks to their back-to-school supply lists this year.

Neither UC nor Xavier has passed this rule yet, but both universities have initiated their pandemic preparedness plans to help prevent infection.

UC’s plan is composed of three phases, the third of which serves as a guide during the most potentially dangerous scenario. UC began phase three of its pandemic preparedness plan upon the confirmation of the two aforementioned H1N1 cases; those people were sequestered immediately and kept isolated until they did not have a fever for 24 hours.

Although no classes or events have been cancelled so far, phase three marks the point at which the UC Emergency Preparedness Committee can make recommendations regarding the cancellation of classes and mass gatherings.

At Xavier, campus officials cancelled or postponed all major events through Labor Day under the recommendation of the Cincinnati Health Department. Those events include all Week of Welcome activities, the Labor Day fireworks, club sports practices and a men’s soccer game.

Confirmed cases of H1N1 at Xavier’s campus are being isolated in the lower level of the Alumni Center.

“The area has space to accommodate 45 students, has sufficient bathroom facilities, showers, is air-conditioned, has a separate air filter system, is quiet, and can be isolated from the rest of the building,” Del Valle says. The area is also furnished with roll-away beds, TVs and wireless Internet access.

Both universities emphasize the so-called golden rule of “self-isolation” to minimize potential for infection.

“Self-isolation is the process of one knowing that they are ill and making the decision to isolate themselves from others until they are without fever for 24 hours without fever reducing medications,” says Pia Washington of UC’s Department of Public Safety.

While both universities have facilities on campus to isolate H1N1 cases, students and staff also have the option of leaving campus and going home if they think they might be infected.

Information regarding H1N1 and ways to minimize the spread of the flu is available on both universities’ campuses and Web sites.

“Since last spring, Xavier has been working to stop the spread of (the) novel H1N1 virus,” Del Valle says. “Those efforts have continued into the fall. Hand sanitizers are more readily available, posters have been placed in all buildings around campus reminding everyone to practice good hygiene (wash your hands, cough into your sleeve, etc.).”

The Cincinnati Health Department has created a Twitter account to keep residents informed during the H1N1 pandemic and notify them of key public health messages throughout the flu season.

“Thousands of citizens will need vaccination and this pandemic clearly has the potential to be widespread,” says Rocky Merz, a Health Department spokesman. “While there are unanswered questions about how severe this will become, we do know that communication with the public will be critically important. Twitter provides us with a unique ability to quickly and directly communicate with the citizenry in almost real time.”

A potential H1N1 vaccine has undergone government and private clinical trials and is about ready for widespread distribution, although it takes time to produce the vaccine in high volumes, federal officials have said.

Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Health and Human Services secretary, says some doses should be ready for high-risk communities like health care workers by Oct. 1 and could become widely available by mid-October.

One bit of encouraging news is that recent tests indicate it will only take about 10 days to develop immunity after being vaccinated; previous tests had indicated a period of three weeks.

Until then, people with flu-like symptoms are encouraged to stay away from campus and limit interaction with others, with the exception of seeking medical attention. Xavier students are encouraged not to hold hands during the Lord’s Prayer and not to drink from the Communion cup during congregation due to the easy spread of H1N1 through person-to-person contact.

As the unnerving H1N1 predictions cannot be validated, it’s still undetermined whether the pandemic will force the universities to cancel classes or close this fall or winter. Neither university has planned to take these actions yet; conversely, neither is sure of when their pandemic preparedness plans will no longer be in effect.

“At this time it is too early to tell,” Del Valle says.