Any day this winter, the alert could come. The responders, a group of University of Michigan undergraduates, will secure their own surgical masks before assisting roommates. They’ll quickly locate their needed supplies -- in this case bottles of alcohol-based hand sanitizer -- before settling into the futon for some reading or maybe heading to the dining hall for some sustenance.
The students are subjects in a two-year, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded study investigating “the feasibility and effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions” in reducing the spread of influenza  in a community setting -- in this case, a college dorm. “This whole thing started because of the threat of pandemic influenza, because the idea is that early in the pandemic, non-pharmaceutical interventions like wearing face masks may be what we have available and all we have available,” says Arnold S. Monto, a professor of epidemiology in Michigan’s School of Public Health who’s conducting the study along with Allison E. Aiello, an assistant professor of epidemiology.
While using hand sanitizer and wearing face masks may seem to be common sense health strategies in the face of a major flu outbreak, Aiello and Monto aren’t aware of any similar studies tracking their effect on flu transmission in a community. And a dorm, with all the “different avenues for transmission,” as Aiello puts it, presents a particularly appropriate study setting.
“It’s interesting that things like this have never been done before with flu mainly because there just wasn’t the interest,” says Monto. “With the threat of a pandemic, the whole scenario changed.”
Researchers are in year two of the $1.3 million study. Michigan student volunteers, living in one of five dorms, are assigned to one of three groups for the course of an eight-week study period that will start when the first case of the flu is confirmed on Michigan’s campus (if that happens over winter break, the study period will commence when students return, Aiello says). One group of students will receive hand sanitizer and education on when to use it, and will also be asked to wear face masks for at least six hours per day for the first six weeks of the study period. Another group will only wear the face masks, while a third will function as the control group.
Subjects will also provide baseline information relative to their normal hand-washing and other health habits, and answer a series of online surveys. At the first sign of flu-like illness, they’re to head to walk-in clinic locations in the university health center and some dorms for a throat swab. During the first phase of the study one year ago, more than 1,000 students participated.
“There’s been a good buzz from students involved and even those involved in the periphery who think, ‘How cool is this, that we can be part of something that might affect how we think about flu in the future,' ” said Greg Merritt, director of residence education at Michigan. "They’re part of a research institution: It’s quite clear.”