Swine flu on the horizon

If expert predictions come true, Mercyhurst College may soon join the 189 colleges affected by the H1N1 virus this year.

According to the the President of the American College Health Association, James Turner, H1N1 (also known as swine flu) affected more than 2,000 college students as of Sept. 4.

Mercyhurst Vice President for Student Life Gerry Tobin, who is the college’s point of contact concerning the H1N1 virus, said, “We’re in this place where we hope we’re in front of the wave with a fairly firm conviction the wave is coming.”

Yet despite 16 confirmed cases in Erie County and a student case at nearby Grove City College, many Mercyhurst students aren’t concerned.

“I’m not too worried about swine flu. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal,” sophomore Meghan Britton said.

Tobin said he hopes students don’t have to be concerned, but doesn’t think that is the reality.

“My sense of college students is they live in a bubble of invulnerability where ‘it won’t happen to me,’” Tobin said. “The problem is convincing them they’re vulnerable. If you think you’re not, that’s just magic thinking. The flu virus doesn’t care what you think.”

Preventing widespread H1N1 infection among students is the goal of a new Mercyhurst committee comprised of staff from human resources, student life, residence life, athletics and the Cohen Health Center, which was formed to “stay ahead of the wave,” as Tobin said.

Director of the Cohen Health Center Christine Dimperio, who heads the new committee, said, “Our mantra is wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands!”

Frequent hand washing and cleaning surfaces are the best prevention techniques, as H1N1 spreads when people come in contact with mucous from those who are infected.

“We can’t imagine the number of times somebody [with swine flu] will come in contact with surfaces around you,” Tobin said.

H1N1 generally appears as a mild flu. The Cohen Health Center encourages people with fevers over 100 degrees to stay away from common areas and call (814) 824-2431 to set up an appointment. According to Dimperio, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) will not begin allocating doses of the vaccine to Mercyhurst before October, but colleges are high on the list.

However, Dimperio warns students against getting “obsessive-compulsive” about prevention and not to overreact. “Not every sore throat, cough or fever is the flu,” she said.

If students do have H1N1, the health center recommends they travel home if convenient, or self-isolate in their apartments until 24 hours after their fever breaks.

Tobin said, “The worst thing I think that can happen is if you feel sick, but not really sick, and you go out and put others at risk. You may not have it very bad, but now you’re out and about in public, and somebody else might get it really badly.”

On the first day of class, professors informed students of relaxed attendance policies in cases of H1N1.

“The quickest way to an F is to give me swine flu, so stay home if you’re sick!” one professor joked to students.

The college first developed plans for a pandemic to prepare for the 2005 avian flu virus. College health officials continue to adapt this plan.

“The plan in place last April is not the plan we have in September,” Tobin said. “We want it to be a living document to change as needs change, and stay within the range of best practice.”

Several people from the college will take part in a webinar at the end of September to continue preparing for swine flu. For frequently updated information, go to www.mercyhurst.edu/students/h1n1_response.