More than 2,000 Washington State University students have reported flu-like symptoms this month, and although campus officials say most cases last from three to five days, web-based course delivery could play an important role if flu cases worsen and quarantined students can’t attend class for several weeks, officials say.
The university created an H1N1 (swine) flu guidance web site last month, and Washington State spokesman James Tinney said the site has had "quite a good readership" over the past three weeks. The web site includes tips like maintaining a six-foot space between sick students and their roommates and waiting 24 hours after a fever recedes to interact with the campus community.
Most students have felt better after just a few days away from class, Tinney said, but a rash of more severe cases could call for online delivery of course content to students isolated in their dorm rooms.
"If these cases were acting more like a typical seasonal flu and lasting 10 days to two weeks, there would probably be more of a need to have some sort of formalized approach to delivering classes to sick students," he said.
The number of cases of suspected swine flu dropped dramatically at Washington State as students left campus over the Labor Day weekend, but school officials were closely watching the numbers this week to see if they would rise as students returned.
Attendance at the Sept. 5 football game against Stanford was down, likely because of publicity about the flu, and the school took precautions that included placing hand sanitizer at concession stands. Coach Paul Wulff said 16 players have come down with cases of flu at different times, and top receiver Daniel Blackledge missed practice Sept. 8 because of the flu.
Officials have distributed about 200 free flu kits, including a thermometer, painkillers, throat lozenges, sport drinks, hand sanitizer, and tissues. Some students wore surgical masks around campus, but most were taking it in stride.
"The students are taking it like any other type of flu," said 21-year-old Molly Aigner, whose boyfriend came down with the flu. "It’s not like we’re growing tails or anything."
There have been no deaths or even hospitalizations from the cases at WSU, a school with an enrollment of about 18,000 in Pullman, Wash. About a dozen patients with nausea and vomiting have required hydration, the school said.
Officials at Washington State, and at other colleges around the nation, have been anticipating large numbers of flu cases this fall, because swine flu targets young people and thrives in the tight living quarters common on college campuses, said Paula Adams, community coordinator for WSU Health and Wellness Services.
WSU started classes on Aug. 24, much earlier than most schools, and thus its outbreak has been getting more attention, Adams said.
Other colleges across the country are seeing spikes in the number of suspected cases of swine flu as dorms fill up and classes begin.
Federal health officials say they have been girding for a spike in H1N1 cases as schools and colleges returned from summer break. "Some colleges have already seen upticks, but the majority of colleges haven’t," Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a Sept. 8 briefing.
Jim Turner, president of the American College Health Association, said colleges and universities were extending health center hours, adding nurses and doctors to health staff, and creating phone triages to answer a flood of calls from students concerned that they might have H1N1.
Preparing IT departments for an increased demand in web-based courses, Turner said, could be crucial in helping sick students continue their education this fall.
"It depends on the support [colleges] have from their technology people," said Turner, executive director for the University of Virginia’s Department of Student Health.
Campus officials will face a new challenge next month when the H1N1 vaccination is released to the public, Turner said. The vaccine will be recommended for anyone 24 years or younger, although the shots will not be mandatory.
"It’s a project of Herculean proportions," he said.
Turner said the third wave of H1N1 will likely come this winter, so college health officials will have a few weeks late in the fall to immunize students against the virus that is sure to return.
Based on federal guidelines, WSU is assuming everyone who calls with flu-like symptoms has swine flu, as there would be only a handful of normal flu cases this time of year, Adams said. "To see hundreds if not thousands of people is unusual," she said.
Anyone who calls Health and Wellness to report flu-like symptoms is counted as a swine flu case. People who call are advised to stay home, treat symptoms, and drink fluids.
Dr. Dennis Garcia, senior associate director of Health and Wellness Services, said federal estimates would indicate that some 5,000 WSU students might eventually come down with the bug.
Compared with other types of influenza, the swine flu, or H1N1 strain, is relatively mild, Garcia said. He said most students suffer three to five days of discomfort, such as fever, congestion, sore throat, and fatigue.
Anticipating a new wave of swine flu outbreaks at colleges and universities this fall, the federal Education Department posted an "H1N1 Higher Education toolkit" on its web site, with guidance for campus leaders.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius stressed the importance of using innovative communications strategies to reach out to students who are most at risk for H1N1 flu, and she highlighted new social media tools and online toolkits that have been created to help faculty, staff, and students at colleges and universities.
"The H1N1 flu appears to be impacting a group of people who not only aren’t used to getting serious cases of the flu but are not used to getting flu shots," said Sebelius.
"They are also people who get their information in different ways and places than public health information has traditionally been given out. It is imperative that the public and private sector work together to reach students with critical information about the flu and teach them what to do when the flu hits their dorm room, fraternity house, or campus classroom."
HHS created a special toolkit for administrators and students, as well some badges and widgets that can be used on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to help spread the word about swine-flu prevention.
H1N1 Higher Education toolkit
Washington State University swine flu page
American College Health Association H1N1 report