When To Call a Flu Day

May 4, 2009

Colleges across the country have seen a case (or a few) of probable or confirmed swine flu, and their responses have varied. Some have canceled certain events but otherwise are operating on normal schedules, while a few have shut down (as have many K-12 schools).

“I think it’s a case of overreaction to some extent," said JoLynn Montgomery, director of the Michigan Center for Public Health Preparedness and research investigator at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. But it's also, she said, a natural reaction for colleges to want "to appear to be doing something, to appease fears. Universities have a lot to take into account, not just spread of disease, but also making sure that parents know that their children are being taken care of. And college students are in fact seen by their parents as children.”

In determining campus closures, "One of the big pieces in deciding whether or not that should happen is how severe the cases of disease are likely to be. That important piece seems to have been left out of the algorithm in the current decision making process. While people are afraid to get this flu, what we’re seeing is not a very serious case of disease or disease process," Montgomery says. In other words, most cases have been mild, and those that have not been mild haven't involved U.S. college students.

"So I think that there’s some disconnect between the policy to close campuses and cancel classes and the science of what’s actually happening from a public health perspective. The science is sometimes missing but schools have to respond to public opinion."

In a classic case of responding to public opinion, Slippery Rock University, in Pennsylvania, fielded hundreds of phone calls from students and parents concerned about possible exposure to the H1N1 virus at Saturday's commencement ceremony. While Slippery Rock has had zero cases of swine flu -- “We don’t even have any cases of regular flu,” Rita Abent, a spokeswoman, said Friday -- the cause for concern was the recent return of 22 students from student teaching in Mexico City. None were showing symptoms, but a special, "alternative" commencement ceremony was planned for these students nonetheless.

“The university made a decision in the interest of safety to really err on that side, err on the side of safety, and made a decision that the students should not participate in the main commencement ceremony,” Abent said.

“To some degree, the students are right in that there’s kind of an uncontrolled hysteria about this, but the fact of the matter is as an institution a decision had to be made.”

Western Oregon University also opted to close its campus through this evening, due to a probable case; if the case is confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the university will likely cancel classes for an additional three days, said Lisa Catto, a university spokeswoman. Residence and dining halls have remained open through the closure, but there were particular concerns about bringing people onto campus this weekend for a planned track meet and a conference, both called off, Catto said. “It is a precautionary measure,” said Catto. “Just to keep a circle around the university and try not to spread it if it is a case [of swine flu].”

Johnson & Wales University, which has two probable cases, canceled all classes and events on its Providence campus through Sunday on the recommendation of the Rhode Island Department of Public Health -- "[o]ut of an overabundance of caution." Everett Community College closed its cosmetology building Friday, with plans to reopen it today, after a student who reported feeling ill "told her instructors that she may have been exposed to swine influenza A (H1N1) virus from a family member." Facilities crews were to sanitize the building this weekend.

Harvard School of Dental Medicine has canceled classes and clinical activities through Wednesday, May 6 because of a cluster of nine possible cases there.

Other colleges with probable or confirmed cases have opted to stay open, although they've canceled selected events. "The most recent decision to remain open and to not cancel classes has to do with the nature of how the illness has spread," said Carolina Hanna, a spokeswoman for Amherst College. "We are canceling some social events where there's potential for people, say, sharing glasses or cups or foods. But with classes, you're sitting close to one another but it's not the same situation as say, a party, where students might be sharing drinks or that sort of thing."

Hanna added, too: "We have a lot of students that live not just out of state but all over the country, even around the world. If we closed down our campus tomorrow that would almost pose a bigger problem because a lot of our students would be taking public transportation home."

The University of Delaware, which as of Saturday had 10 confirmed cases and 14 probable ones, has canceled some large-scale events but otherwise has remained open. On Saturday, President Patrick T. Harker wrote in a letter, "Based on the continued support of the Delaware Division of Public Health (DPH), Christiana Care, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the University of Delaware will remain open next week. DPH officials said today that the symptoms among UD students are mild, and all students given a probable or positive H1N1 flu diagnosis are recovering. In fact, some no longer have symptoms."

The CDC on Friday updated its H1N1 flu alert for colleges. Among the recommendations for were to: "Monitor the postings on the CDC web site and that of your local and state health departments and follow local health department advice about possible closure of colleges and universities."

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