Northland area colleges are ready if swine flu hitsBuddy systems. Isolated housing. Campus shutdowns. They’re all contingencies that area colleges have discussed as students return to dormitories — petri dishes for contagious disease — in the midst of concerns about the swine flu virus.
By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune
Buddy systems. Isolated housing. Campus shutdowns.
They’re all contingencies that area colleges have discussed as students return to dormitories — petri dishes for contagious disease — in the midst of concerns about the H1N1 virus.
“When you have people living together, going to class together, eating together … that’s the way an infection spreads,” said John Weiske, head of housing at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
As the country waits to see what the virus, also known as the swine flu, will do with students’ return to school, colleges with on-campus residences are armed with pages of plans and bottles of sanitizer.
While the virus has caused mostly minor illness, there’s still a possibility it will mutate and become more life-threatening, health-care officials say.
The Centers for Disease Control is completing testing on a swine flu vaccine, which should be ready by October, said Guy Peterson, head of public health services for St. Louis County.
The virus was everywhere in Minnesota this summer, Peterson said, from Lake of the Woods to the border of Iowa, but officials have stopped counting because of its mild nature.
“It’s not worth the effort and expense to try to count these things,” Peterson said. “It’s not killing people.”
Meanwhile, students and everyone else should be getting the seasonal flu vaccine, he said.
Higher education officials want students to exercise common-sense vigilance: washing hands thoroughly, coughing into elbows and avoiding touching eyes and mouths. But when those fail and students begin to get sick, colleges — with guidance released recently by the CDC for higher education institutions — have prepared for a pandemic.
UMD, because of its more than 3,000 students living on campus and thousands of others who work and study there, has a 29-page emergency operations plan.
By the time school started today, student health services already had a separate entrance for those with flu symptoms, along with a separate waiting area.
“What we do know about this virus is that it’s quite contagious and spreads very rapidly,” said Dr. David Worley, medical director and interim director of UMD’s health services. “If we have a dozen to 20 or 30 students coming in within a few days’ time, we’re going to know at that point that this is beginning.”
Resident advisers at UMD, the College of St. Scholastica and the University of Wisconsin-Superior have been trained or informed of various protocol regarding plans.
Because many of St. Scholastica’s resident advisers are in the school’s health-care programs, they have been asked to assist with caring for students in case the school must close. Because a sizable portion of CSS students are international or live hours away, temporary housing has been planned so sick students who remain on campus will stay in the same area.
Food delivery has been planned, and appropriate gear and supplies have been purchased, said Betsy Kneepkens, head of residence life at St. Scholastica.
“We’ve gone through the bird flu and Y2K,” she said. “We’re learned a lot each time we’ve had to plan for something.”
All three schools ask that ill students confine themselves to dorm rooms, off-campus living or to go home if within driving range and personal transportation is available.
The CDC recommends that ill students who stay on campus use roommates as “buddies” to go out for food and supplies. Schools are passing that advice on to students.
UWS has stocked up on disposable thermometers and surgical masks and has assembled 500 flu kits to hand out. The school is encouraging faculty not to require notes from doctors for missed classes if an outbreak moves through the campus, to ease the stress on health-care providers, said Dawn Schulze, director of UWS health services.
St. Scholastica is considering changing attendance policies for swine flu illness for the same reasons.
“We’re hoping they can self-isolate and not have to worry about getting a note,” said Mary Beth Waage, lead nurse for the school’s health services.
But students will be expected to report illness to instructors to help track those affected.
The CDC has recommended various text messages with the idea that texting is a good way to reach students immediately. UMD and St. Scholastica plan to use texting. All schools will use e-mail, Web sites and other types of alerts.
An intense outbreak probably would mean closing the campus, Worley said.
“It depends on the activity of the virus, the severity of infection and how many are infected,” he said, and input from the CDC, state and county health departments and UMD officials.
UWS would treat closure the same way, Schulze said.
“Right now we can plan for the worst, hope for the best and still not have all the answers,” she said.