College students invariably share close quarters in dorm rooms, drink from the same cups at parties, cough and sneeze on each other while in class. Within days of the first reported fever, the football team’s front line, half a sorority and an entire hallway in a freshman dorm are all sick.
In any other year, it would be the seasonal flu, which predictably rambles through North America between November and March. But this year it’s September, the virus is H1N1 influenza and, though symptoms seem mild, fears persist that it could become something worse.
From August 29 to September 4, 180 colleges voluntarily reported 4,974 new cases to the American College Health Association (ACHA). Another 56 institutions reported no new cases in the survey, but together those respondents represent less than 20 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities.
For every sick student in ACHA survey, though, there are more than 500 not infected with H1N1 and those healthy students are starting to feel the effects of sharing campuses with the ill.
The Inter-Fraternity Council at Cornell University enacted a seven-day moratorium on social events that began on Wednesday night. Weekend keg parties, fall formals and trips to wineries have all been put on hold, said Eddie Rooker, a senior who is the group’s president. “The priority is safety, health and wellness,” he said. “We can’t provide a safe, healthy social environment, so we decided to take precautions.”
Not everyone in Rooker’s own fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, wanted the moratorium, he said, nor did all fraternities’ representatives to the council; 11 of the group’s 40 voters were opposed to it. “A lot of people don’t realize how serious it could be for us,” he said. “The Greek system and the whole campus need to take a step back and … get the conversation going” about stopping the spread of H1N1.
More than 450 Cornell students have reported symptoms suggesting H1N1 since classes started in late August. (Most college health centers and municipalities have stopped testing for the virus and are instead identifying probable cases based on symptoms.) Simeon Moss, a university spokesman, said Cornell’s outbreak “started slowly, but over the last week we’ve seen a big surge in cases” as students have gotten settled into their fall semester routines.
Moss said he’s seen “concern on campus, mixed with a healthy understanding that there are clear ways to prevent this illness and that the symptoms haven’t been severe.” The decision to put fraternity events on hold, he added, suggested that at least some students had gotten the message “to not go out, party and get into circulation with others.”
Rammy Salem, a senior who is president of Cornell's Student Assembly, said his organization is considering canceling or postponing other campus events where H1N1 might spread. He supports "proactive and preventative measures rather than a wait-and-see reactionary approach."
Given the recent uptick in cases as Cornell, James C. Turner, president of ACHA, said the social event moratorium “sounds like a very smart decision” because “any socializing of large groups of people in indoor poorly ventilated conditions really promotes the spread of germs.”
Campuses, he said, are always places where airborne illnesses are likely to spread, with a “high density of human beings living in congregate space, dining in large dining halls with lots of people, gathering in large lecture rooms and classrooms and then these concentrations of large numbers of people socializing together.” Big lecture classes, he added, aren't dangerous unless a student is "within six feet of someone who appears to be sick."
Turner said the threat of H1N1 doesn’t call for blanket closures or cancellations. Institutions are “going to have to make decisions on whether or not to cancel public gatherings based on what conditions are like there.”
The University of Maryland at College Park has had more than 250 suspected H1N1 cases but there hasn't been "any panic over the situation," said Lisa Crisalli, a junior. She said she hasn't heard about any events being called off, though after parties and other social events she has "heard people worried about creating an incubator" while gathered together in a small room.
Victoria Seng, a senior, said she knows two classmates who have been sick but have since recovered but hasn't seen much change on campus as H1N1 has spread. "I'm being more mindful about washing my hands a lot and encouraging people who live with me or interact with me on a daily basis to do that too."
She hasn't shied away from crowds and other students, it seems, haven't either. "Before a soccer game last weekend," she said, "I still saw lots of people cooking together out in the parking lot."
ACHA's Turner is also executive director of the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia, which has seen 78 cases of suspected H1N1 among its 20,000 students since August 22. The number of reported illnesses has picked up in the last few days since the football team’s first home game last weekend and he expects it will spike even higher after this weekend’s game.
He’s not worried about too many people contracting H1N1 at the game because stadiums are “outdoors, well-ventilated and unless you’re kissing the person next to you whenever your team scores a touchdown, you’re not going to get it.” What he is worried about is “the socializing surrounding football games": the tailgates, the post-parties, the drinking games where students share cups.
Stillman College's football team forfeited its home football opener against Clark Atlanta last week because 37 team members had flu-like symptoms. It's the only football cancellation so far this fall, but teams at the University of Mississippi and Duke and Tulane Universities, among elsewhere, have each had several sick players.
The University of Georgia conservatively estimates that 350 students have contracted H1N1 since the start of the semester, including star freshman safety Makiri Pugh, who missed last Saturday’s away game against Oklahoma State University (which has seen dozens of students with flu-like symptoms since early August).
Elizabeth M. Rachun, public relations coordinator for Georgia’s health center, said she and other officials there “suspect that after the first home football game, there’ll be a sharp increase” in the number of students reporting flu-like symptoms. Even so, she said, “there really is no panic … people are getting better, they’re not getting very sick, they’re going home to their families if possible.”
Sixteen members of Washington State University’s football team sat out Saturday’s home opener against Stanford University. The crowd totaled 22,386, 5,500 fewer than attended the first home game last season.
The university's Pullman campus has seen more than 2,600 of its 18,000 students contract flu-like symptoms since classes started on August 24. But, said James Tinney, director of media relations, the university “has not been paralyzed,” noting that because the illness generally lasts three to five days, most of the students who were sick have since recovered.
Based on cases that have been reported to the university’s health center, he said, “on any one day 300 to 400 people are ill with some sort of flu symptoms,” only about 2 percent of the student population. “We’re cycling through this. We’ve settled into a routine on how to serve these students.”
Tinney said a visitor to Pullman “could walk back and forth across our campus and it wouldn’t strike you that the campus is dealing with something like this.” The only hints, he said, might be some posters encouraging frequent handwashing, and covered coughs and sneezes.
Media reports, he added, have made the situation seem worse than it really is. “Everyone is going about their lives, but somehow every TV crew that comes to campus seems to find someone wearing a mask.”
The University of Wisconsin-Madison reported 198 new cases for the week ending last Saturday. More than 10 members of the university’s football team have reported symptoms since Sunday.
Sarah Van Orman, executive director of health services, said the university is telling healthy students H1N1 “is something they need to take seriously but they don’t need to panic about or be afraid of.” The administration isn’t urging the cancellation of any events or any extra precautions beyond good hygiene and staying away from people who seem to be sick. “We aren’t asking students to change what they’d normally do.”
But, she added, Wisconsin officials are concerned that many students, faculty and staff will get sick all at once and force a temporary closure. “I think it’s a realistic fear that enough people could get sick that we wouldn’t be able to go about our daily business.”