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Swine flu rises at US colleges , students return

News - Health Articles

ATLANTA — Colleges across the country are seeing spikes in the number of students with suspected cases of swine flu as dorms fill up and classes begin for the fall semester.

While the increases were expected and colleges say they were ready for the coughing, sneezing and feverish students before move-in day, health experts say hundreds more could get sick as the virus winds its way through college campuses.

At Georgia Tech in Atlanta, classes are in full swing for the university's 20,000 students, and so is the highly contagious H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu.

The university has had 150 suspected cases of the virus in the two weeks since students moved back to campus.

Georgia Tech freshman Elise Woodall, 18, was met with a message scrawled on the bathroom mirror of her dorm when she moved in two weeks ago: "Wash your hands. Swine is not fine."

"Nobody wants to get sick because missing classes is a pain," said Woodall, a biomedical engineering major from Marietta.

At the University of Kansas, almost 200 students have reported having flu-like symptoms in the last week or so, spokesman Todd Cohen said. University of Tennessee administrators are estimating about 100 suspected swine flu cases on campus, spokesman Jay Mayfield said.

The University of Alabama had more than 50 cases of flu reported on the first day of classes last week. At Texas Christian University, 10 students were diagnosed with swine flu on the first day of class Monday.

"We're finding out for the first time in a long time how quickly a contagious disease can move," said Don Mills, vice chancellor for student affairs at Texas Christian.

To get ready for the expected outbreak, colleges stocked up on hand sanitizing gel and Tamiflu — an anti-viral pill — while others have designated empty dorms where sick students can be isolated. Some campuses have developed "flu kits" with items like tissues, thermometers and box lunches for students in isolation.

Students have been getting regular e-mails from administrators reminding them to wash their hands frequently, stay away from sick friends and isolate themselves if they develop flu-like symptoms.

"We all knew this was going to happen," said Liz Rachun, spokeswoman for the University of Georgia health clinic, which has seen nearly 50 suspected swine flu cases in the last two weeks. "We stocked up on masks and we have doctors in place."

Health experts predicted swine flu cases would spike once the school year began and that colleges and elementary and secondary schools would see an increase in cases.

Most campuses won't know for certain how many confirmed swine flu cases they have this year because many states are no longer routinely running tests on every suspected case. Still, many administrators say they're treating every case as if it's swine flu to help stem the spread of the disease.

Health officials say the concern is that swine flu is very contagious and spreads quickly once it is introduced to a population. That means hundreds more could get sick in the next few weeks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta recommends students with flu symptoms — fever, cough, sneezing, chills, aches, sometimes diarrhea or vomiting — stay home from class.

"The mere fact you have lots of people in close proximity with each other results in the virus being transmitted from person to person," said CDC spokesman Tom Skinner. "I don't think we're surprised by the fact influenza is returning to these campuses. What is concerning to us is people becoming complacent about this and not taking the steps we know can protect them."

Here is a quick look at the new recommendations.

Swine Flu at Colleges and Universities

Apart from swine flu prevention tips that apply to everyone -- such as washing your hands,coughing into a tissue or your sleeve, cleaning shared surfaces like doorknobs, and staying home when you're sick -- the CDC has specific recommendations for college students living on campus.

The key guideline is for people with flu-like illness to avoid other people until at least 24 hours after they are free of fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or more, or signs of fever, without use of fever-reducing medicines.

That means not going to classes, not going out to meals, not socializing in person, and avoiding close contact such as kissing, sharing eating or drinking utensils, or having other contact that would make it easy for the H1N1 virus to spread. The basic idea is to stay at least 6 feet away from people the sick person lives with.

Some students may have their own dorm rooms or temporarily move to a private home off campus. But if they have roommates, the CDC says the sick person should stay at least 6 feet away from people they live with and wear a surgical mask if close contact can't be avoided, and that shared bathrooms be avoided or cleaned frequently.

The CDC encourages colleges and universities to plan the solutions that would work best for their own particular situation and suggests considering setting up temporary, alternate housing -- such as a gym -- where sick students can recover.

To make that easier, the CDC suggests enlisting a friend to help out as a swine flu "buddy" who can bring in food, class notes, and other necessities.

Young adults have been hard hit by swine flu. The CDC advises college-age students to  to find out if they've got high-risk conditions that could make swine flu more severe.

Managing Swine Flu at Work

The CDC's swine flu guidance for businesses and employers focuses on preparing for people to be out sick -- and on reassuring staff that staying home won't cost them their job.

As with college students, the CDC's main point is that workers with flu-like symptoms should stay home and not come back to work until at least 24 hours after they are free of a fever, or signs of a fever, without using fever-reducing medicines.

The CDC also urges employers to come up with flexible leave policies, in case workers need to stay home and care for a child who is sick or whose school or child care program has closed due to swine flu.


ere are some of the CDC's other swine flu tips for businesses and employers:

  • Expect sick employees to be out for three to five days, even if they're taking antiviral drugs.
  • If an employee gets sick during the day, isolate them from other workers and send them home promptly.
  • Don't require a doctor's note to allow recovered employees to come back to work.
  • Provide soap and water and alcohol-based hand sanitizers in the workplace.
  • Place posters in the work site that encourage employees to wash their hands often and to cover their coughs and sneezes with a tissue or sleeve.
  • Frequently clean surfaces and items that are likely to be touched frequently, including work stations, doorknobs, and countertops.
  • Encourage employees to get vaccinated against seasonal influenza and to get the swine flu vaccine when it becomes available.

The CDC also encourages seasonal flu vaccination -- and swine flu vaccination, when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available -- for students and workers. Colleges, universities, and businesses should also plan how they would handle swine flu if it gets a lot worse than it is right now, according to the CDC.


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