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Universities ready for the swine flu

Colleges' efforts to keep dorm dwellers healthy include hygiene talks, self-care kits and quarantines.

September 12, 2009|Dawn Bonker

Cram college students into close quarters -- the shared restrooms, the group dining, the TV lounges where a steamy bag of microwave popcorn becomes communal property -- and dorm living can suddenly become a daily exercise in dodging illness.

With what is shaping up to be an unusually difficult influenza season ahead, university student housing and health officials are launching extraordinary measures aimed at keeping dorm dwellers healthy in their homes-away-from-home.

At UC Irvine, students moving into residence halls later this month will receive colorful doorknob hangers to post if they contract the flu, warning visitors to steer clear. Dining halls at UC Riverside will switch to pre-wrapped packets of silverware so students don't paw around communal bins. Cal State Long Beach will give away kits stuffed with self-care advice, tissues, disposable thermometers, ibuprofen and Gatorade. And at USC, dining halls will provide ailing residents with light meals they may recall from their childhoods, the so-called BRAT menu of banana, rice, applesauce and toast.

Until the October arrival of a vaccine for the H1N1 virus, often called swine flu, colleges and universities are installing hand sanitizers and showering students with posters, e-mails and handouts about hygiene -- all with good reason.

The American College Health Assn. has reported more than 6,000 documented cases of flu-like illness since Aug. 22, including more than 2,500 cases alone at Washington State University in Pullman. That could explain why, as Sonoma State students are being offered complimentary surgical masks, some schools in other parts of the country are taking even more extreme measures.

At Yale University, where the number of confirmed H1N1 cases rose to 55 this week, sick students are being asked to quarantine themselves in their rooms, where meals are being delivered to the door and visitors are being turned away. The Boston Globe reported that five dozen dorm rooms at Boston University have been designated for the sick and that in the event of an outbreak, a gymnasium will be converted into an infirmary. Emory University in Atlanta has gone a step further, sending students suspected of having the H1N1 virus to a separate quarantined building -- a dorm slated for demolition -- where the ill are fed on-site and kept from attending classes.

Although UC Irvine expects to offer quarantined rooms too, many other Southern California campuses have no vacant rooms to set aside. Sick students will be urged to take their virus home to Mom and Dad until they are fever-free for 24 hours. At orientation sessions this summer, UC Riverside officials already were advising parents to have a flu plan that includes a way for a student to return home.

"We'll have health kits on the floors, but there's only so much we can do in the residence halls," said Andy Plumley, UC Riverside's assistant vice chancellor for housing services.

And what if your roommate is sick and unable to get home?

"Probably by the time your roommate's sick, you've already been exposed," said Dr. Larry Neinstein, executive director of the University Park Health Center and a professor of pediatrics and medicine at USC. He reminded students and parents not to panic: Though highly contagious, the N1H1 virus so far has proved to be a mild to moderate bug for otherwise healthy people.

Young adults are considered at risk for H1N1 because that age group has little previous exposure. Plus, college students are walking petri dishes, said Lisa Cornish, senior executive director of student housing at UC Irvine.

"I look at them sharing lip gloss, sipping form each other's drinks," she said. "They're very social. They love to hug. It's their culture."

When it comes to preparation, it helps that some universities have had practice. Last year, a fierce norovirus -- the sort of intestinal illness that occasionally plagues cruise ships and preschools -- hit USC, sickening more than 300 students and prompting officials to hand out free hand sanitizer and to send in crews in hazardous material suits to clean residence halls daily.

Dr. Michael Carbuto, director of student health services at Cal State Long Beach, said this year's particularly infectious strain of flu could not only affect living arrangements but also wreak havoc on course work, exam schedules and athletic programs.

"It is quite contagious," Carbuto said.

Students seem to be taking the hubbub in stride, however. Margot Hemphill, 19, shares a suite with 14 other people at Cal State Long Beach. Is she fretting?

"Midterms are like a 10," said Hemphill, who already has taken to using paper towels every time she grabs a restroom door handle. "And flu is like a 2 -- or 1."

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