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U.S. Colleges Prep for H1N1

U.S. Colleges Prep for H1N1


August 26, 2009

As millions of students head back to campus this month, college and university health care workers are stocking up on masks and flu-fighting drugs such as Tamiflu as they encourage students to get both annual seasonal flu vaccine and the H1N1 vaccine in mid-October.

A University of Wisconsin committee brainstormed how to get food to sequestered students in dorms and what routine appointments to halt at the student health center if there’s an influx of flu patients, says epidemiologist Craig Roberts. “We think about it almost constantly.”

Arizona State University, among others, has stocked up on Tamiflu as part of a government program that handed out discounted medicine to colleges last year. But while the school has enough to handle an outbreak, Allan Markus, the university’s health director, says faculty and staff on campuses “are often the ones trying to combat these diseases. The places people count on to come up with solutions may be the hardest hit.”

At the University of Virginia, students started returning Aug. 22, and officials there have been preparing by educating resident advisers about H1N1. James Turner, executive director of the university’s Department of Student Health, says he expects H1N1 cases to appear within days of students’ arrival.

Turner lobbied the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to include 19- to 24-year-olds in the first-priority group for the H1N1 vaccine. With 8,000 students in residence halls and a health staff of 110 workers, he says, he is prepared to treat up to 100 students a day. He already has set up a 24-hour hotline for flu-stricken students.

College-age students are more vulnerable to swine flu than to regular winter flu, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius says, and they don’t always see doctors or get regular vaccinations. “They need to be encouraged to not only take care of themselves but to isolate themselves when they are sick.”

Amherst College in Massachusetts is keeping two residential halls empty for isolating infected students from Amherst as well as other area colleges. Nearby Mount Holyoke will send infected students home by private car if they live within 250 miles, but those from farther away may be assigned to isolated campus quarters.

St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., has a campus gymnasium available for isolating students if needed. And at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, officials are reserving an unused sorority house in case it’s needed.

Hamilton College in New York plans to deliver food crates and “flu kits” — with items such as tissues and thermometers — to moderately ill students in their rooms, though it plans to move more seriously ill students to isolated housing.

Officials say colleges would be reluctant to impose some kind of quarantine. Instead, they will rely on students to do the right thing, says Anita Barkin of Carnegie-Mellon: "We’re telling students, ‘We want you to be a good public health citizen here.’ "