August 28, 2009

H1N1: How are college campuses preparing for threat of flu virus?

Source: NYSUT News Wire

On Monday, August 31, some 14, 500 students will begin classes at the Binghamton University, part of the giant State University of New York system and its half million students, faculty and staff. This year, there's a strong likelihood that some of them may have or may get the swine flu.

Last year Binghamton U had one confirmed case of the H1N1 virus, an illness which continues to thrive and is expected to return stronger with the start of school and people living, working and studying in close proximity. Campus officials have been heeding alerts from the Centers for Disease Control about taking precautions against spread of the flu, and this summer assembled the college's Incident Management Team. Spokesman Ryan Yarosh said the team has already identified and stocked medical and support supplies; created an educational campaign focusing on good health; and come up with plans for large events such as commencement.

Each college will respond differently based on the size and location of the campus, student population and other factors. "There isn't one size that fits all," said David Henehan, director of media relations for SUNY.

The City University of New York, with 23 institutions in New York City, reports that campuses have been busy preparing for a potential resurgence of H1N1 influenza by circulating informational posters, keeping soap dispensers well stocked and holding numerous briefings to keep administrators abreast of updated pandemic flu plans. The University has updated its pandemic influenza response plan and has charged its Risk Management Council's Infectious Disease Committee with developing protocols. Efforts have been coordinated with the Office of Emergency Management and the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

The CDC has recently issued new guidance specifically for institutions of higher education, which includes recommended actions that should be taken now. It also suggests strategies to consider in the future if the flu starts causing more severe disease. The guidance document can be found at: http://www.flu.gov/plan/school/higheredguidance.html. Among their recommendations are "self-isolation" - calling on those with flu-like illness to stay away from classes and limit interactions with other people, except for seeking medical care, for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever without the use of medicine.

Of note to faculty and staff is the CDC recommendation that campus administrators review and revise, as needed, policies such as sick leave for faculty and staff, that make it difficult for them to stay home when they are ill or to care for an ill family member. The same follows for student absenteeism. Campuses are urged not to require a doctor's note to confirm illness or recovery because, CDC says, doctor's offices may be very busy and may not be able to provide such documentation in a timely way.

Temporary, alternate housing for ill students should be considered for those who do not have a private room or cannot leave campus. Public transportation should not be used by those who are ill.

"Distance learning or Web-based learning may help students maintain self-isolation," the CDC reports.

Students, faculty and staff should establish regular, frequent schedules to keep clean such high-touch surfaces as bathrooms, doorknobs, telephones, elevator buttons and tables. Students should be encouraged to clean their living quarters frequently. Also, administrators should determine if special communication strategies are needed to meet the needs of students with disabilities.