Colleges Prepare for the Worst With H1N1

With a potentially more pervasive H1N1 virus this fall, colleges providing students’ primary health services are preparing for the worst.

Plans at small or remote campuses where many students rely on the school’s health center for care include taking actions such as adding additional nurses and emergency health tents to potentially canceling classes.

The virus, commonly called Swine Flu, is relatively mild and officials don’t want students to panic, but they also want to be ready.

Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., has plans to add an emergency hospital tent, increase the number of nurses, and provide two separate quarantine shelters for students with H1N1 should there be a major outbreak.

The school of 2,400 undergraduate and 500 graduate students has six beds and 16 medical staff members, said Steve Mead, who is in charge of the school’s emergency response. About 2,200 hundred students live on campus.

If there is a large outbreak, “the health center would probably be overwhelmed,” he said. He didn’t know how many nurses would be added, but arrangements have already been made for additional temporary health care workers if needed. The additional expenses, currently unknown, would be covered by funds set aside for emergencies.

The school would expand health care services by setting up a white tent next to the student health center, complete with beds, phones and Internet. They would also open what they called hard isolation areas in the school’s sports and recreation center and TV studio. More than 20 men and 20 women could use the facilities, complete with beds, showers and restrooms.

“What we’re telling students and faculty is to self report and get out of the public,” he said.

The closest hospital is about 10 minutes away from campus, Mead said.

They also have plans to send some sick students into a soft quarantine, where they are asked to stay in their dorm rooms, wear masks and clean surfaces that they touch.

If a severe flu hit more students than could be accommodated by the temporary facilities and staff, the school would likely send everyone home that they could, Mead said.

Wheaton is in the process of discussing at what point they would close down and options for teaching while numerous students or professors are ill. One option could involve teaching over the Internet.

“What we are trying to do is anticipate how many days can you miss in a semester and still have class,” Mead said.

In preparation of the first day of school on Wednesday, Wheaton College officials are keeping track of the flu’s progress and convening regular meetings of the Incident Management Team. Health officials there also stockpiled three times the standard amounts of the normal flu season vaccine.

At Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., a severe H1N1 outbreak could eventually mean increasing the nursing staff, isolating infected students, telling students to go home or sending students to the hospital 12 minutes away from campus.

The campus has one full-time nurse, two part-time nurses and a part-time physician or physicians assistant, Judy Duda, the director of health student health.

She said while the campus had a small health staff, the demand for health services was not great. The school has about 1,400 undergraduate students. Duda said she thought the school had the same ability to provide resources as larger schools.

Westminster College will follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for how higher education institutions should respond to influenza this academic year.

Should the flu become more severe than that of the H1N1 virus this spring and summer, the CDC plan indicates schools should consider telling students, faculty and staff to stay home, consider suspending classes and isolating individuals for longer periods of time.

“The plan is sufficient for the present time,” Duda said. “But you always have to be ready to change and adjust for what’s going on in our area.

Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, about 15 miles from the nearest town, provides health services for a majority of its 1,200 students. Staff will use the Crisis Management Team to discuss and monitor the virus.

If there is an outbreak — which Jill deLaubenfels, the director of the college’s health center, said is probable — that group will be responsible for taking action.

“For right now, because this thing is looking like a mild illness, we are going to treat it like that,” she said.

They aren’t panicked yet and feel they can handle an influx in student patients, but they also don’t know how big of a problem an outbreak could become.

The Iowa college will post updates about the flu in a campus bathroom newsletter called the Toilet Paper and provide information above sinks on proper hand washing and coughing techniques.

DeLaubenfels said she will encourage professors to tell students to stay home if they are sick.

Danny Valentine is a student at the University of Iowa.