August 28, 2009

Facing Pandemic Threat, Cornell Gears Up for H1N1

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Correction Appended
Potentially 50 percent of the United States’ population could be infected by the H1NI virus, commonly known as swine flu, according to a report that the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology released on Monday. In light of the global threat of swine flu, colleges and universities across the nation are gearing up for what could be a serious interruption of typical campus activity.
 Mississippi State University has 250 likely cases of the H1N1 virus, according to Fox News. Combined with similar reports from other colleges, many universities have felt the need to prepare because of the way H1N1 differs from the typical seasonal flu.
 “The virus is causing illness that is more or less like seasonal influenza in its effects. But its unlike seasonal influenza in that it seems to be affecting different age groups from those typically most affected by seasonal influenza,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations for Gannett Health Services. “With this flu, what we’re seeing is an epidemiological curve that’s a little more typical of what we know about pandemics in the past.”
According to Dittman, Gannett was aware of around 10 cases of flu during the summer, but it was unknown whether these cases were related to swine flu due to difficulties in testing.
“Gannett saw about ten people with flu-like illnesses this summer, but  testing was not done to determine how many of them were caused by the H1N1 virus,” Dittman said.
 While the seasonal flu mostly impacts infants and the elderly, children and young adults are abnormally stricken by H1N1 virus, causing severe symptoms that lead to hospitalization.
Since it seems college students are in the age bracket of vulnerability for experiencing severe symptoms from H1N1, the University is preparing for the event that an outbreak of H1N1 occurs on campus.
 The first line of preparation is prevention.

[img_assist|nid=37669|title=Take Note|desc=Incoming freshmen stand in line in front of Clara Dickson Hall to obtain their room keys last Friday. The hall’s notice board displays much information about H1N1.|link=node|align=left|width=336|height=224]
 “If we as a community can extend the time that we don’t have widespread illness here, then we have a chance of getting to the point where more people are protected by the vaccine and maybe we won’t have a 50 percent outbreak,” Dittman said.
 As is evidenced by the plethora of information the University has made available to students, parents and faculty, Cornell wants the people on its campus to be aware of H1N1 and constantly take measures to protect themselves from possible contraction.
 For instance, information has been posted on the University’s and Gannett Health Center’s website. Cornell has also sent an e-mail to students, parents and faculty, in addition to giving out hand sanitizer and information to freshmen during Orientation.
 Since H1N1 is a completely new strain, the majority of people have either very little or no immunological protection from it. The University, therefore, is stressing good hygiene habits such as hand w­ashing, covering coughs and sneezes and not sharing drinks, among others.
 “Until there’s an H1N1 vaccine, our only defenses against the H1N1 virus are the efforts we make to protect ourselves and each other by following public health recommendations,” Dittman stated in an e-mail. “Our immune systems don’t have antibodies to fight the virus, but it’s important to keep them hearty.”
 In the event that the virus is contracted, one’s immune system can help with the recovery as long as proper care is taken such as eating well, drinking fluids and getting ample amounts of sleep.
 Beyond trying to minimize the number of infected cases on campus, the University has also been making plans in anticipation of a minor or major outbreak. The first step is to try to minimize the spread of the virus on campus.

 “We’ve suggested that folks isolate — either stay home, stay in their rooms — if they feel they have flu symptoms and not come back into circulation until at least 24 hours after their symptoms have ended,” said Simeon Moss ’73, deputy University spokesperson.
 Since the University is stressing isolation for those who contract the virus, it is understood that if either students or professors fall ill, they will likely miss a substantial amount of class time. Provost Kent Fuchs has been working with faculty to make plans in case students or professors miss multiple classes.
 In addition, while the University is stressing that students should plan for the possibility of contracting the virus — they should make plans with their healthcare provider about what they should do if they contract the virus, make sure they have a friend that can provide them with food, decide whether or not they live close enough to go home rather than stay on campus — Dittman also noted that all students should be aware of basic information so they know how to avoid contracting the virus from a peer. 
For students with roommates, the social distancing that will help them reduce exposure is about six feet. “It’s not an airborne virus; it’s droplet-borne and falls to the surface within about three feet,” Dittman said.
 Since the virus is transmitted via droplets rather than air, it is important to continually cleanse mutual surfaces.
 The University is working with Campus Life to review their approach to cleaning handrails, doorknobs and other surfaces that are commonly touched, according to Dittman.
 The medicinal approaches to fighting the virus are few, since the H1N1 is viral. But vaccines are currently being produced. According to The Detroit News, the vaccine should be available around October, but it is unclear when Tompkins County or Cornell will begin receiving the vaccine. Dittman is optimistic that the University or Tompkins County will be getting the vaccine before the beginning of next year.
 In addition to the vaccine, Tamiflu is an anti-viral medication that can either shorten the duration or lessen the severity of the symptoms. However, according to Dittman, it is a remedy that should only be used for patients with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk for complications because there is concern that the virus can become resistant to Tamiflu if it is overused.
 While the University has been planning in the hopes of limiting the scope of any outbreak on campus, it has also been planning for worst-case scenarios.
 “We’re doing a fair amount of contingency planning,” Moss said.
 For the past three years, the University has been developing a “Preparation and Response Plan” for a possible influenza pandemic. While Dittman said this was not the pandemic they were anticipating, those preparations have still paid dividends for planning for a possible H1N1 outbreak.
 Because of this planning, as well as developing a new approach to general emergency planning, the University has plans prepared for if operations on campus have to be either curtailed or closed.
 “We have a lot of the network in place,” Dittman said.
 One plan that the University hopes not to have to resort to is a relocation of Barton Hall’s activities, so the facility can be used to care for those who have contracted the vaccine. Some universities, such as Amherst College, are leaving residence halls vacant for the potentiality of transporting infected students there. Cornell does not have this kind of capacity, so plans like the one for Barton Hall are in place; but Dittman said they would much rather have the students stay isolated in their own dorm rooms or apartments.

Friday’s news article, “Facing Pandemic Threat, Cornell Gears Up for H1N1,” incorrectly identified who to speak with when preparing for the possibility of H1N1. If you are worried about contracting the flu, please contact your health care provider.