Cornell University Remains Open Despite Flu Outbreak, Death

By Michael Stratford and Megan Carney

Cornell Sun, Cornell University

As swine flu rumors circulated across campus seemingly more quickly than the H1N1 virus itself, Cornell officials said this week that the university would remain open and there were no plans to cancel or modify classes unless the outbreak significantly worsens or a new strain of the flu emerges.

“We’re trying to be both reactive, as well as proactive on behalf of the institution,” Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’74 said of the university's planning efforts.

Nonetheless, the past several weeks—during which time health services has diagnosed 623 cases of probable H1N1 flu and one student has died from H1N1 flu complications––have proven to be a major test of Cornell's emergency management infrastructure and planning.

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During the same time last year, the university reported no cases of seasonal flu and recorded only 256 cases of flu the entire year, campus officials stated.

Thus far, the university has produced a resource-intensive, coordinated response that has involved nearly all major units of Cornell’s Ithaca campus and both highly visible and behind-the-scenes elements.

Adapting Previous Plans

In responding to the present H1N1 flu outbreak, administrators have relied on the organizational mechanisms created by a previous plan for a different type of pandemic.

That plan—drafted in June 2008 when the greatest pandemic threat was thought to be H1N5 influenza or “avian flu”—outlines pandemic phases, with specific actions to be taken and resources to be distributed at discrete levels of an incident at Cornell.

While the specific stage details and phases don’t apply well to the current H1N1 situation, the organizational structure has still proven useful, according to university officials.

“Through using the avian flu pandemic as an example of emergency planning, we developed a model of managing crises on the campus,” Murphy said.

The Flu Incident Lead Team, which was established in the spring when H1N1 first made headlines, manages the day-to-day flu-related operations. The team meets twice each week and involves representatives from a range of campus units. The team and its subgroups seek to address the practical issues raised by the H1N1 outbreak, such as dining and transportation concerns, and academic attendance policies.

As swine flu began to spread quickly on campus several weeks ago, the university convened a higher level of flu-related leadership—the Ad Hoc Incident Group for H1N1, comprised of Cornell’s most senior administrators and which meets on a daily basis.

The group includes Vice President for Human Resources Mary Opperman, Senior Vice Provost John Siliciano, Vice President for Communications Tommy Bruce, Gannett’s Executive Director Janet-Corson Rikert and Vice President for Facilities Kyu-Jung Whang.

Murphy said that both groups are evaluating the H1N1 virus as it progresses, with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the New York State Department of Health. She added that there are not specific thresholds for when the university would make its decision.

Except for a shift in the strain or a significant increase in the number of infected faculty or staff, the normal business of the university would continue, she said.

What would cause the university to shut down at any level?

“What might be a trigger is if there was such penetration in the faculty and staff that we couldn’t run Cornell University in a way to be safe and productive for students, productive for research,” Murphy said. “But I don’t see that we’re anywhere near that at this point.”

Dealing With a Different Flu

Much of the university’s previous planning for dealing with a pandemic has proved unhelpful for dealing with the current situation because H1N1 is a novel strain of influenza that is distinct from the H1N5 avian flu and seasonal flu.

Seasonal flu, by definition, is a virus that has been around before. Many people have developed some immunity through prior exposure.

“Because this strain of H1N1 is a new virus, there isn’t immunity to stop it from spreading from person to person,” Sharon Dittman said in an e-mail.

On the other hand, many people have immunity to the seasonal flu by previously contracting it or receiving a flu shot.

The lack of any immunity to the novel H1N1 virus explains its unusually rapid spread across campus over the past several weeks, according to Dittman.

Communicating effectively to the public about the spread of flu on campus also presents a challenge, as university health officials seek to navigate a middle ground between inciting unnecessary fear and promoting complacency.

Dittman cautions that a heavy media and community emphasis on the total number of probable swine flu cases creates a myriad of misconceptions.

Those numbers are not necessarily are good metric for explaining the state of the virus on campus, Dittman said, because they do not indicate the actual number of people sick with the flu at any given time. The numbers do not explain that the majority of Gannett’s patients are now healthy, nor do they take into account people with flu on campus who did not report it to Gannett, she said.

Even though Gannett’s caseload is lighter on some days and heavier on others, “It is too soon to tell whether the incidence of flu in our community has peaked,” Dittman explained.

Directing Campus Resources

The behind-the-scenes flu planning in Day Hall has produced some tangible resource reallocations across campus.

The university is dedicating “considerable” campus resources to its flu response and prevention efforts, according to Murphy. Asked what financial impact H1N1 is having on Cornell’s already troubled fiscal situation, Murphy said it was too early to tell.

“I know there are costs. I don’t know what they are yet. We’re trying to track them,” Murphy said, adding that an estimate of the fall H1N1 costs should be available by the winter. She cited the production of thousands of flu kits, overtime of hourly staff and extra nursing staff at Gannett as some of the main unexpected costs that the university is incurring.

Aside from an increase in unexpected costs, part of the university’s efforts is aimed at more efficiently allocated resources. For example, some administrative functions and public outreach at Gannett has been outsourced to other campus offices to allow its staff to focus on the high volume of sick patients.

Elsewhere on campus, flu response and planning can be seen in a multitude of locations.

Christine Stallmann, director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety, said that her office has worked with Cornell Dining, Campus Life and Building Care to ensure that they are following the CDC’s recommendations for preventing H1N1.

The changes range from using the proper cleaning chemicals to removing chips and pretzel bowls at dining halls to installing hand sanitizer stations in building lobbies and open spaces.

Stallmann also said her office is open to performing swine flu training sessions for any groups or units on campus that request them.

This story was originally published by Cornell Daily Sun.