H1N1 prompts safety precautions at RPI

During the first few weeks of classes, H1N1, also known as swine flu, has been a recurrent topic on campus. Professors were asked to discuss the flu with their classes, and consequently, many went over some basic hygiene suggestions to help prevent the spread of the flu. In addition, some professors have announced contingency plans for lectures and grade determination in the event that many students or the professors themselves are unable to attend classes. Signs have appeared around campus reinforcing basic hygiene practices, while some professors are passing around hand sanitizer or Clorox wipes in classes. Medical Director of the Student Health Center Leslie Lawrence states that these health guidelines are an attempt to slow any potential spread of H1N1, which would assure that an outbreak could be more thoroughly handled by the Institute’s resources. He felt that professors would be one of the best ways to reach students about the virus.

These measures have sparked mixed reactions among students. Some have reacted positively to the preparation. “I think they’re acting responsibly, because it seems like it’s going to spread,” said Carly Antonucci ‘12. Meanwhile, others believe that RPI’s reaction to swine flu is out of hand. Among them is Mel Diaz ‘11, who stated, “I definitely think that this is blown out of proportion. People die of the flu every year. … Just because this is a different variant, people are freaking out.”

However, H1N1, which is not related to previous or current seasonal influenzas, differs from the typical seasonal flu in a number of ways. Most people have some amount of immunity to seasonal flu, which is caused by related viruses each year, but they have little or no immunity to H1N1. In addition, this new virus is particularly infectious for those between 10 and 45 years old. Based on his research of other universities’ experiences, Lawrence cites that H1N1 also tends to spread very quickly. He describes it as “explosive,” going quickly from a small number of infected students to hundreds within a couple of days. While the flu, for most individuals, will consist of a few days of discomfort and then fade away, it can be deadly for those with underlying health conditions or weak immune systems.

Lawrence recommends that a student who suspects he or she might have H1N1 should first evaluate whether the illness is actually the flu or instead an upper respiratory tract infection (otherwise known as the common cold). The illnesses are commonly confused, although there are a couple key differences in the symptoms they present. Influenza symptoms will likely appear all at once: You could be feeling fine one moment, and the next you’ll have a sore throat, headache, muscle aches, fever, chills, a cough, and a runny nose. An upper respiratory tract infection might have similar symptoms, but they will likely appear more gradually: a sore throat, some congestion hours later, worse congestion after two days, a cough after a few more, and so on. A cold is also likely to result in much more mucus than the flu. Another important difference between the two illnesses is that flu’s fever is higher. A fever with an upper respiratory tract infection is rarely greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, while influenza usually results in a fever of 101.5 degrees or greater, especially in young people. To aid in dealing with potential illness, Lawrence recommends students put together a “flu kit,” which includes things such as over-the-counter medications and a thermometer. Information about these kits is available at http://www.rpi.edu/about/flu/FluKits.pdf. The health center asked Father’s Marketplace in the Rensselaer Union to order extra digital thermometers (the inexpensive kind) so that they are available to students.

If a student believes he has H1N1, Lawrence suggests that the first thing he should do is call the Student Health Center to make an appointment. If cases of this new virus are reported, the health center will be doing influenza tests on the first reported cases to verify whether the disease is H1N1. The health center will send home ill students whose parents live within a reasonable distance. Otherwise, if an explosion of the disease hits campus, isolation rooms will be set up for the sick (currently, they expect approximately 80–90 beds). Food, linens, biohazard bags, and medical checkups will be provided to the isolated students each day. Any student that has the flu or suspects he has the flu is strongly encouraged to stay home and not attend class, as both H1N1 and the seasonal flu are very contagious. Professors have been asked to be lenient with absences, and while any absence will be checked for validity, students should be assured that they will not be punished for staying home while sick.

President Barack Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology issued a report that said they expected 50 percent of the population to contract H1N1. If this is the case at RPI, the Health Center may not be able to individually see every student that falls sick. If that happens, the center will set up a triage room and separate the ill into categories: Those with the typical influenza symptoms will be separated from those having difficulty breathing or remain ill after the typical amount of time. While students with more mild versions of the illness will be expected to treat themselves in their rooms in such a scenario, those in high-risk categories (such as pregnant women or those with underlying health conditions) will always be evaluated by the health center.

H1N1 outbreaks have occurred at several universities around the country, with one of the largest at Washington State University, where more than 2,000 students are infected. Closer to RPI, more than 550 cases are reported at Cornell, including one death from complications related to the illness. Lawrence stresses that he does not want students to panic and that RPI is simply preparing for any possible scenario. He and other officials at the school have been studying the situation and responses at other universities and using that information to draft the best possible contingency plan. The result, still in progress, is a phased plan to deal with different levels of outbreak. It progresses from phase one, in which no cases of H1N1 are reported, to five, in which not only classes but all non-essential services will be discontinued (note that essential services, such as heating, Public Safety, and the Health Center, will be maintained).