Elson S. Floyd, Ph.D. - 9/9/09
Coping with the Flu
Over the summer, universities across the country needed to add an additional item to their agenda for back-to-school planning -- anticipating the outbreak of H1N1 influenza.
Our plans here at Washington State University were quickly tested, with the first potential case among our students being reported even before classes began. Since then, for better or worse, our Pullman campus has seemingly become “ground zero” for local, state and national media reporting on H1N1 influenza.
I think it is important to highlight a few points about the university’s response to this outbreak and about some of the news coverage that has resulted.
First, our Health and Wellness Services team has done an absolutely outstanding job both in planning for an outbreak and in carrying out its plan. The campus clinic has been open additional days in response to student demand, and our health-care providers have put in extra hours dispensing compassionate care and sound medical advice in equal measure.
As some of our students came down with the flu, we started receiving calls from concerned parents and others who were responding to rumors they had heard about the severity of the outbreak and the impact it was having on our university’s operations.
Fortunately, as most of you know, the symptoms of this flu have been quite mild in most of the people on our campus who have contracted it; by most accounts, it has been milder than the usual cases of seasonal flu. Most cases have also been relatively short in duration – three to five days – so students who have contracted it toward the end of one week might very well be better by early in the next.
Our experience runs counter to an image that was fixed in the public mind this spring when initial reports of swine flu cases from Mexico seemed to point to a much more dangerous virus.
Health and Wellness Services has published frequent on-line updates about the number of patients reporting flu-like symptoms, either by phone or by visiting the clinic. The health center has also been answering questions on-line in an effort to discuss the campus impact of the virus and dispel some fears about H1N1. Our university has been transparent and timely in our communications.
As one of the first wave of universities to open its doors for the fall semester, WSU has become a test case not just for the medical response to the flu outbreak, but for the media response as well. Much of that coverage has been measured and complete; other reports have told only part of the story.
When Health and Wellness Services reported having had more than 2,000 phone and in-person contacts with students complaining of flu-like symptoms, that became, in the journalistic shorthand of some news outlets, “More than 2,000 sick with swine flu at WSU.”
In fact, those contacts were made over a period of about 10 days. Considering the relatively short duration of this flu in most patients, the number of ongoing cases actually would be only a fraction of those reported over that period of time. While it is probably safe to assume that most people reporting flu-like symptoms did indeed have the flu, it is difficult to make an absolute estimate of cases based on the numbers of contacts. Also, Health and Wellness Services, in accord with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines, is not routinely testing for H1N1 or swine flu. As a result, the number of cases confirmed through testing at WSU is actually quite small.
So the numbers alone don’t tell us much. Other universities may be using reporting systems that include only positive influenza tests or those who actually come to their clinics with influenza-like illness, which would tend to underestimate the number of cases.
What we do know is that this flu virus is a presence on this campus and on campuses nationwide. Even though the individual cases have been mild, prevention remains vital. I encourage everyone to follow the guidelines for flu prevention and treatment printed on the university’s flu guidance page at http://h1n1flu.wsu.edu/ .
As more universities open, I would expect to see more reporting about H1N1 outbreaks. Of course, it is possible that as these outbreaks become common, they might become old news and fade from view.
What will remain, for me at least, is pride in how our university has dealt with and is continuing to deal with this outbreak. Cougars helping Cougars is very much part of our mindset on all of our campuses. I appreciate the helping hands that so many have extended to a friend, a roommate, or a colleague, as we work together to make this flu season a little easier to bear for all of us.