Swine Flu Hogs Campus Spotlight

By Jeremy B. Merrill and Russell M. Page

SwineFluAn endless loop of talking heads warning of the dangers of an oncoming H1N1 (a.k.a. “swine flu”) pandemic has been playing on televisions for months. Meanwhile, looking around Claremont, where the impact of the disease has been minimal to nonexistent so far, one can be pardoned for doubting the apocalyptic-sounding projections.

At this stage, the virus does not seem to be any more harmful than the normal seasonal flu. Last year, when it originated in Mexico and started spreading throughout the world, a panic began. So far, that panic seems to have been an overreaction. However, the history of rogue strains of the flu similar to the H1N1, suggests that we are far from in the clear. Neither the Spanish Flu of 1918, which killed millions worldwide, nor the Avian Flu, which recently left a large death toll across Asia, started off as deathly viruses. After spreading across large populations of primarily young adults, both viruses mutated into their deadly forms.

On residential college campuses, where students live in close quarters, sharing cups and sleeping with each other, outbreaks can quickly progress from a few isolated cases to a full-blown epidemic in less than a week. Since August, college campuses across the nation have been the sites of some frighteningly large outbreaks of the disease.
“Masks are everywhere,” comments Jacob Curnutt, a student at Washington State University, where over 2,000 H1N1 cases were reported in just the first two weeks of classes.

WSU sent students with confirmed cases of the virus home. Others who presented symptoms were encouraged to not attend classes. Hannah Hawkins, another WSU student, claimed many people had symptoms, but few actually had H1N1. This was possibly because nearly everyone who “had a sore throat and went to the Health and Wellness Clinic was told to not go to class and given a mask and flyer.”

There have been similar stories coming from other colleges and universities such as Cameron Roberts’s at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “One-third to one-half of the students in my classes didn’t show up on any given day,” he said. Wake Forest suspended all attendance policies for the duration of the outbreak, encouraging students to skip class if they felt even the least bit sick. Roberts acknowledges, however, that some students took advantage of the policy to simply sleep in.

The outbreak did not squelch student spirit at either campus, though. According to Roberts, although students began using hand sanitizer far more conscientiously, life continued more or less normally, “At parties, we just played what we called ‘swine pong.’ We’d fill cups with water, then drink from our own can of beer, or we’d just pour the beer from the cups into our own cup to drink it.” At Washington State, students held a “Swine Flu Party,” in which students masqueraded in the mask kits given out by the university.

Up to this point, the situation has remained relatively quiet at the Claremont Colleges, and across all colleges and universities in California. Yet, given what other campuses have been experiencing in the last month, it is best to be prepared for the worst. The standard preventative email sent out to CMC students in September states that regular flu shots will be available through Student Health Services beginning October 21, with an H1N1 vaccine scheduled to be released by the end of the year.

The Port Side met with Dean of Students Jefferson Huang to discuss the 5Cs’ strategy for combating the flu if and when it comes to Claremont. According to Huang, the school’s strategy is tripartite: informative, preventative, and, if need be, reactive. Regarding prevention, the school has begun encouraging sick community members to use the “Dracula sneeze,” sneezing into their elbows to avoid getting germs onto their hands and then onto doorknobs and plumbing fixtures. Student Health Services is also now tracking influenza-like illnesses (ILIs); in the first three weeks of school, the 5Cs suffered first five ILIs, then five more and finally three ILIs during the third week. It appears clear that no H1N1 epidemic is in progress, but Huang warns, “We should be careful not to get lulled into a false sense of security here in Claremont.”

CMC has made preparations, should an epidemic occur. The school, however, has not stockpiled the popular antiviral drug Tamiflu. Huang explains that the school does not want to waste tens of thousands of dollars on drugs that would be useless should epidemic fears prove to be overblown and that Claremont-area pharmacies have an adequate and more convenient Tamiflu supply. Nonetheless, the Dean of Students has asked Bon Appétit to stockpile Gatorade and has prepared one hundred “flu kits” — containing tissues, ibuprofen, Purell handwipes, a disposable thermometer, and information sheets — to be distributed to infected students. SHS is also carefully monitoring the vaccine situation; colleges are on the second tier of recipients for the forthcoming nasal spray vaccine, expected to arrive in late October.

Should an epidemic indeed break out, the school does have an academic plan: the 5C Deans of Faculty would meet and make a joint recommendation to the Council of Presidents if and when cancellation of classes or the remainder of the semester would become necessary. Students would still get credit for courses taken this semester, or this semester’s classes would be finished in the spring.

The reported duration of H1N1 flu is about 10 to 14 days. According to Huang, students are typically able to catch up on work after having missed up to two weeks. Though Huang does not fear that students would lose their work for the semester due to the flu, he said, “I would advocate for a tuition refund for any student forced to withdraw due to the flu.”

CMC does have a detailed quarantine plan, in the event that doctors recommend self-segregation of infected patients or if the patient requests it. The first (and hopefully only) quarantined students would be housed in the Fawcett apartment, while further patients would be housed in currently-vacant houses to the south of campus. Resident assistants, nurses, and other students would visit the quarantined a few times a day, delivering food from Collins.

Rest assured that Claremont McKenna and the Claremont Colleges in general are well prepared for an outbreak – and lucky to have avoided one so far. However, the possibility of an outbreak is real. Stay vigilant, do the “Dracula sneeze,” and stay home if you’re feeling sick.

The Claremont Port Side is dedicated to providing the Claremont Colleges with contextualized, intelligent reports to advance debate among students and citizens. This is a progressive newsmagazine that offers pertinent information and thoughtful analysis on the issues confronting and challenging our world, our country, and our community.

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