Bay Area colleges and universities brace for stressful flu season
By Lisa M. Krieger
Study hard. Call home. And when playing Beer Pong, please don't share cups.
College students - perhaps nature's most social creatures - are descending on local campuses, trading germs as quickly as class notes. Awaiting them is not just the traditional collegiate advice but also instruction in flu prevention.
Anticipating swine flu outbreaks, student health centers are creating exclusive waiting areas for flu sufferers. Some schools, such as Santa Clara University, will offer isolated dorm rooms. This week, San Jose State University is distributing small disposable thermometers to fraternities and sororities - and has room to open an entire Club Swine dormitory, if needed, to prevent the spread.
"When you have a lot of young people living so close together, you have the potential for more rapid spread of respiratory viruses," said Dr. Ira Friedman, director of Stanford University's Vaden Health Center.
More than 80 percent of the nation's colleges and universities tracking swine flu cases have reported infected students, up from 73 percent of all schools the previous week, according to the American College Health Association. Most cases are mild, running their course in one week. But it has claimed the lives of two college students so far, one at Cornell University in New York and another at Troy University in Alabama.
California has not yet felt the full impact of the virus, and no local campus tests specifically for the H1N1 virus. The University of California-Berkeley, where students from all over the world do summer course work, reported about 40 to 50 cases of influenza-like illnesses per week over the summer - but the campus has halted testing this fall because the virus is so prevalent, according to Kim LaPean of UC-Berkeley's University Health Services.
So far, the highest rates of illness have been reported in the Southeast region of the country, where fall semesters get an earlier start. But Northwest schools - such as Washington State University, where at least 2,000 students have become sick - also have experienced large outbreaks.
"When you have many people in close contact, it doesn't take much to spread from person to person," said Dr. Drew Malloy, medical director of University of California-Santa Cruz's Student Health Center. A cautionary letter, written by Malloy, was distributed Thursday to every student who arrived on campus.
The festive sorority and fraternity "rush," which precedes the start of classes, sets the stage for many outbreaks, says James Turner, American College Health Association president and director of the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Unlike the seasonal flu, swine flu more commonly affects children and young adults, such as college students. And because its development flared up only last April, most people have no immunity against it.
Although almost everyone recovers fully, college officials say they don't want to be surprised by a case that suddenly turns lethal in a student with unrecognized risk factors, such as heart or lung problems.
"My roommate's had the flu for the last five days, but I haven't gotten sick, so I think there's a good chance I'll make it,'' said Stanford student David Pham, 20, a biology major from Houston who has studied viruses. "The only way for a virus to transmit is if you touch something with the virus on it, then touch your nose or mouth.
"I stick to my own area and stay out of range when he coughs, and wash my hands a lot. I don't use his computer. They gave him a mask, but really, what college student is going to wear a mask?''
Separate the sick
Schools are in a tough spot. Under the doctrine of in loco parentis ("in the place of a parent"), they bear some responsibility for students, and they want them to stay healthy.
So they're urging custodians to focus cleaning on doorknobs, restrooms and keyboards in computer labs.
But after prevention, colleges' key strategy is to separate the sick from the healthy.
Federal officials have said colleges should consider suspending classes if their campus sees a major outbreak. They are also urging schools to suspend any rules - such as penalties for late papers or missed classes, or a required doctor's note - that might take ill students out of bed.
At SJSU, sick students who live nearby will be encouraged to return to Mom and Dad or visit relatives, if they can travel by private transit.
But for students who can't go home, SJSU will separate roommates. It has an entire 1950s-style dorm, now empty, which can be quickly reopened if needed.
Santa Clara University will also isolate students, providing food in a special lobby or even delivering it to students' rooms.
At UC-Santa Cruz, where dorms are full, sick students will be given a surgical mask. Dormitories are full at Stanford as well, so roommates are instructed to keep a distance of three to six feet.
Stanford's Friedman offers the best advice, as well as toughest to enforce in the social whirl that is college: "Keep as far away as possible from each other."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.
? If you have a fever of 100 degrees and a cough or sore throat, you may have the flu.
? Most cases of flu today are likely due to H1N1 (swine flu).
? Faculty and staff who experience symptoms are asked to stay home and avoid work until at least 24 hours after they are free of fever or signs of fever without the use of fever-reducing medications. Students should self-isolate in their room and avoid attending classes or events.
? Sick people should remain isolated and avoid contact with others for 24 hours after their fever has gone away without the use of fever-reducing medication (anything that contains ibuprofen or acetaminophen.)
? Seek medical attention if you are having difficulty breathing or are getting worse.
? Seek medical attention if you are in a higher risk group: children under 5; pregnant women; people with chronic conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease; or people over 65.