January 21, 2019

GUEST ROOM | The Flu: Protecting yourself, safeguarding our community

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Across the country, the last few weeks have brought with them the rise of influenza in homes, schools, communities, health centers and hospitals. As the spring semester begins, I’ve engaged with students, faculty and staff about preparing and responding to the flu season at Cornell. Many have asked: How bad is this year’s flu season likely to be? How does Cornell Health prepare? Are we as a community safe? How can I protect myself?

This year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released for the first time a midyear flu season report, showing that between 6 and 7 million people have gotten sick with the flu, and up to half have sought medical care for their illness. Most states, including New York, are reporting widespread activity, which means that there is increased or sustained numbers of laboratory-confirmed cases in over half of the counties in the state.

While the current flu season is clearly underway, the CDC is reporting that “severity indicators are lower than they were during a similar time-frame last season.” Despite these early estimates, they warn everyone — patients, families, healthcare professionals and public health entities — to continue to prepare for several more weeks of flu season. It is impossible to predict how these future weeks will unfold.

For this reason, we at Cornell Health prepare for the winter flu season months in advance, starting with a community-wide flu vaccine effort in the fall. This year, we partnered with Wegmans to bring vaccine clinics across campus, and were able to vaccinate over 11,000 Cornellians: almost 8,000 in campus clinics and about 3,000 at Cornell Health. Each year we aim to deliver more vaccines than the previous year, and this year we met our goal, successfully vaccinating 1,500 more individuals by the close of 2018 than we did in 2017. These numbers aren’t able to account for the vaccinations some individuals choose to get outside of Cornell, meaning the reality of vaccinated individuals in the community is likely higher.

Cornell Health spends the early weeks in January ensuring the community has what it needs to get through the season. We ensure we have enough staffing, including surge capacity in our nursing and clinician staff, to respond to an uptick in sick visits. Despite current estimates of demand and severity, we anticipate seeing flu-like illnesses as students return to campus from all over the world, where different strains and severity of the flu are prevalent. We stock our laboratory with appropriate testing supplies to ensure rapid turn-around of results, and our pharmacy with antiviral drugs (like Tamiflu) and non-prescription medications and supplies (including “flu kits”) to help you weather the illness. We also resupply flu vaccines, to continue the vaccination effort even as the flu season begins.

This year, with increased numbers of vaccinations in the community, we as a community are better prepared than ever for flu season. Still, there are important ways that you can protect yourself as you return to campus and as the semester gets underway:

Get a flu shot — it’s not too late! Flu vaccines are FREE for students, and for student spouses/partners on SHP. Make an appointment and get vaccinated at Cornell Health: health.cornell.edu. Individuals with chronic illnesses, like asthma, diabetes, immunological conditions and others, should make a specific effort to protect themselves.

Wash your hands: as often as you can with soap and warm water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer for times you can’t wash.

Take care of yourself: get enough sleep, proper nutrition, and care for your mental health.  We are here for you — for your physical and mental health, and all of the ways that they intertwine.

Take a moment to take care of each other, too. The more we help each other — get vaccinated, remind friends to stay at home when they are sick, and encourage others to seek treatment and care when they need it — the better we can get through the flu season together.

Anne C. Jones ’04, DO, MPH is director of medical services at Cornell Health. She can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically.