H1N1 continues to spread on campus

Rensselaer has been the focus of national attention in the past week after an e-mail from Director of the Student Health Center Leslie Lawrence was misinterpreted and incorrectly portrayed by a number of media outlets. Although a number of news sources have stated that RPI has banned beer pong in light of the rapid spread of H1N1 influenza across campus, Rensselaer has just warned of the increased risk of spreading germs through parties and drinking games.

With the incorrect report appearing in national forums like The New York Times and Saturday Night Live, the Institute has received a great deal of press regarding the false report of banning beer pong. Lawrence has said that the spread of the information has been like a game of telephone, where the message continually gets distorted.

As of yesterday, the Institute has experienced a total of 121 reported cases of flu-like illness among students, many of which are related to social events on weekends. Lawrence remarked that the spike in illness two weeks ago was mostly due to the spread of germs at both Reunion & Homecoming Weekend and the Career Fair, and that last week’s spike was due to a number of parties and social events being held for the long weekend. “The virus has a 24–48 hour incubation period, so we see a few cases on Monday and then a larger number come in on Tuesday after, say, a Saturday party,” Lawrence said.

One of the most common questions the Health Center has heard is why shared alcohol could contain germs when hand sanitizer (which contains alcohol) cannot. Lawrence said that while hand sanitizer contains approximately 60–70 percent alcohol, beer and wine do not come close to the concentration of alcohol needed to effectively kill germs.

Currently, of the 121 cases RPI has seen, 77 of those with the virus have recovered and returned to campus, leaving 44 students with active cases either in isolation or recovering at home. No major complications with the flu have been reported at Rensselaer, according to Lawrence.

Due to the large number of students seeking treatment at the Health Center, plans were moved forward to open auxiliary health services in the auditorium of Academy Hall to quickly diagnose and treat ill students.

In addition, several faculty and staff members have begun to report influenza-like illnesses through a new website that RPI has put in place because of the recent wave of illness. Through the Division of Human Resources, faculty have been asked to track their attendance by indicating each day if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms and if they are at work, working from home, or not working. Faculty members have also been asked by the Health Center to report if an abnormally large number of students are absent from class, so that the Health Center can continue to evaluate the presence of flu at the Institute.

Another common question posed over the past week has been how RPI is confirming that the flu cases are actually H1N1. Lawrence said that the Center for Disease Control is no longer allowing confirmatory testing for H1N1 except in hospitals and intensive care units. The CDC has also said that virtually any case of influenza at the moment can be assumed to be H1N1 and view confirmatory testing a waste of taxpayers’ money. Thus, e-mail updates about the Institute’s number of flu cases have only mentioned “flu-like illnesses.”

Lawrence tells students that in addition to the typical precautions—such as being sure to wash hands often and avoiding those who seem ill—students should be careful at social events like parties and sporting events, particularly with the approach of Family Weekend. He implores students who feel ill to stay home and avoid going to social outings. “It’s not just you; we’ve seen a large spread at social events, just because you are more likely to be in closer contact at parties. Personal space tends to shrink in these situations.”

No further information on when the H1N1 vaccine will be available at RPI has been released, with the exception that it is expected to be on campus in the coming weeks.