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Campus flu activity increases, UMass looks to curb H1N1 with vaccine

With over 27,000 Americans infected by the global H1N1 pandemic and the traditional flu season approaching fast, the University of Massachusetts and the rest of the Five Colleges are bracing themselves for a wave of cases.

The H1N1 vaccine is not expected to be available to students until halfway through the fall semester. Currently, the Five Colleges are administering seasonal flu shots which do not have any effect on stopping H1N1 virus.

In a meeting on Sept. 24 with Ann Becker, UHS’ chief public health nurse, Becker stated that “seasonal flu shots are in limited supply due to the vast numbers of students trying to get immunized.”

At UMass, seasonal flu shots have been administered over the past two weeks, and there are a limited number left. A visit to University Health Services’ (UHS) flu clinic during hours last Thursday unveiled a team of nurses administering shots behind curtains in a large room with a sizeable waiting line outside the door.

The amount of flu activity on campus increased last week, according to Becker.

“Last week we saw several cases of seasonal flu, which is somewhat high for this early in flu season,” said Becker during an interview. “And there are definitely more coming. In fact, it’s been estimated that roughly 30 to 40 percent of the campus could come down with the flu at some point this season.”

More seasonal flu vaccines have been ordered, but they will take some time to arrive.

“Currently, UHS is running low on seasonal flu vaccines, but we still have a good supply of nasal mists,” said Becker. “These are recommended for anyone ages two to 49 who is healthy and not pregnant.”

The nasal mists are offered as an alternative to the traditional syringe vaccination. They consist of an anti-flu virus which is inhaled through the nostrils and is then absorbed into the bloodstream.

In order to make immunizations more easily accessible to students, UHS is planning two walk-in seasonal flu clinics in the campus center auditorium, on Oct. 1, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Oct. 27, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The cost of the immunization will be $30, and the clinic will be open to the public.

Becker stated that once any student comes down with flu-like symptoms (e.g. fatigue, headaches, fever and chills, body pains, etc.), they should call the UHS Triage Advice Nurse at (413) 577-5229. Then, they can receive advice as to whether or not they have the flu and what their next course of action should be.

“One message that I want to get out there is that UHS will look at students with the flu; however, right now we are just trying to see who can manage on their own,” said Becker.

As part of its plan for coping with cases of students infected with either H1N1 or seasonal flu, UHS will be asking infected students to go home, if possible. If this is not feasible for the student, they are advised to stay in their rooms and e-mail their professors to inform them of their illness and make the necessary arrangements. In addition, they will be advised to find themselves what Becker refers to as a “flu buddy.”

“A ‘flu buddy’ is anyone who can look after the sick student until they get better,” she said. “We will also distribute flu kits to sick students. These will contain items to help students take care of themselves, including surgical masks and brochures about the flu.”

UMass Dining also plays an important role in the well-being of ill students who are forced to stay on campus. “Sick trays” are offered, which are packaged meals for bed-ridden students. They must be requested ahead of time and include chicken soup, crackers, Jell-O, fruit and ginger ale.

UHS’ communications manager Karen Dunbar Scully stresses the value of staying up-to-date on the swine flu development by visiting the UHS website.

“I especially want to encourage people to look at our flu resource web page,” she said. “There is a lot of useful information there for both students and faculty.”

UHS is coordinating the Five Colleges’ vaccine response to the swine flu threat, led in large part by Becker.

Once the federal government receives its shipment of 195 million doses of H1N1 vaccine, it will distribute them to the states. In the case of Massachusetts, 1,600 drop sites have already been determined for healthcare providers to collect their orders.

To reduce the risk of any difficulties in ordering and retrieving the doses of vaccine, the Five Colleges decided to order them collectively as a group, according to Becker.

“[The Five Colleges] ordered 32,000 doses of H1N1 vaccine in total,” she said.

The other schools in the Five Colleges system are making preparations of their own to cope with both seasonal flu and H1N1. And just like at UMass, seasonal flu shots have been going fast.

At Hampshire College, for example, it took just two weeks for the student body to go through the college’s entire stock of seasonal flu vaccines. More have been ordered, but it will take some time for them to arrive, according to Sara Aierstuck, Hampshire’s director of health services.

“The problem is that right now, most pharmaceutical companies are devoting their resources to producing the H1N1 vaccine,” said Aierstuck during a phone interview.

Hampshire College has made preparations to offer what Aierstuck refers to as “isolation services” to sick students.

“What’s great about Hampshire is that most students have single rooms, so they can easily be isolated there. We’re offering them meal deliveries, check-up calls by our nurse staff, notifying their professors about their illnesses and flu-care kits.”

Aierstuck said that the kits will include hand sanitizer, surgical masks, tissues, instruction kits on how sick students should take care of themselves, cough drops and over-the-counter drugs to help them cope with their flu.

At Mount Holyoke College, several students have developed flu-like symptoms, according to Nancy Apple, MHC’s director of environmental health and safety.

 “We have a limited number of single rooms and on-campus apartments that we have set aside to isolate ill students,” she said during a phone interview.

As with UMass and Hampshire, shots have been administered to faculty and students at MHC for several weeks now, but supplies are dwindling. But instead of using flu kits, the isolation units will be equipped ahead of time with flu-care supplies for when the ill student arrives.

Officials at Smith and Amherst Colleges could not be reached for comment. However, a post on the Smith Health Services website revealed that as of Sept. 17, the college had 60 doses of seasonal flu vaccine remaining, and will not offer any more vaccinations after Sept. 22 until they are resupplied.

Similarly, on Amherst College’s health department website, a post indicated that the campus has seen two alleged cases of flu. The students were isolated and recovered fairly quickly, according to the post.

In addition, another post updated on Aug. 28 showcased detailed plans for flu patients. Ill students with singles will be isolated in their rooms, while those in shared rooms will be confined to an empty residence hall, where staff will deliver meals daily. Hand sanitizer dispensers have been installed in every building on campus, and a communications line has been opened up for isolated students to keep in touch with health personnel.

 Cameron Ford can be reached at cjford@student.umass.edu.

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