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Campuses prepare for flu pandemic

Preventive measures start now, planning for worse scenarios is under way

BY PAULINE ANDERSON | SEP 08 2009

After late-summer meetings with public health officials, universities across the country are putting the finishing touches on preparedness plans for an expected resurgence later this fall of the H1N1 virus, or swine flu.

Many schools are planning some type of information blitz on their campus that includes disseminating information on how to stay healthy (for example, avoid physical contact, wash hands frequently and stay home if ill). Some will use pamphlets, posters and their websites to get the word out, while others are considering the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Other precautions go further. University of British Columbia officials are considering holding mass vaccination clinics if necessary, said David Zajdlik, director of UBC health, safety and environment. Dalhousie University is upgrading its cleaning procedures on campus as a preventive measure.

By mid-August, officials and student leaders from universities and community colleges across the Atlantic region took part in an online seminar initiated by the Nova Scotia department of health promotion. It was an opportunity to ask flu-related questions and share experiences, said Peter Halpin, executive director of the Association of Atlantic Universities. AAU members agreed to develop a consistent regional approach to surveillance, he added.

Should such initiatives fail to prevent an H1N1 outbreak, universities have contingency containment plans ready. The predicted outbreak is not exactly a surprise, said Mr. Halpin. “Everyone has been waiting for this” especially after the recent scare over a related virus – H5N1, or bird flu, which can be deadlier but less contagious. According to Mr. Halpin, most of his association’s 17 member campuses have “pretty comprehensive programs that are well developed and ready for execution.”

A typical emergency preparedness plan includes provisions for determining essential services in the event of a disaster like a pandemic and for cross-training employees in various departments to ensure backup for critical functions. The University of Manitoba’s plan, for example, includes details on how the institution would continue to conduct business.

“If you have half your staff available, there are protocols on how you get your work done in the information services and technology department, or how you get your work done in public affairs,” said Kenton Friesen, emergency management coordinator at U of Manitoba.

Like most emergency preparedness plans, the one at UBC is ready but will continue to evolve, depending on recommendations of local health authorities, said Mr. Zajdlik.

Some institutions are updating plans that were drawn up in the wake of previous disease outbreaks, for example, after the SARS outbreak in Toronto affected universities in that city in 2003, and after the Norwalk virus hit Mount Allison and St. Francis Xavier in 2006.

There appear to be some H1N1-specific plans in the works, too. McGill University in Montreal, for example, is discussing the idea of having professors prepare lectures in advance to be posted online should they themselves fall ill with the flu.

Students may be hardest hit by H1N1, a virus that appears to favour infecting young adults, and universities are preparing for this. Dalhousie is considering the use of technology to allow sick students to do their work without attending class, says a spokesperson.

University of Alberta officials are discussing what to do in the event of an outbreak in a residence, since the recommendation that students “stay home if ill” isn’t appropriate for them, said Laird Burton, manager of the Office of Emergency Management at U of A. If enough students fall ill, one possibility is to isolate them in a wing or a floor of a residence. “We’ll be doing surveillance all the time to check the numbers,” said Mr. Burton. He said a plan could be put in place in a matter of hours.

UBC officials are considering the possibility of limiting public gatherings. “We’re looking at different thresholds of faculty, staff and students,” said Mr. Zajdlik. “If we have 40-percent absenteeism of faculty and staff, then clearly we’ve got a significant issue on our hands and we would very likely be looking at curtailment of classes or public gatherings.” If classes are suspended due to a flu pandemic, students would not be penalized academically.

A few steps to follow

  • The Public Health Agency of Canada released guidelines for postsecondary education institutions on Aug. 18 regarding the prevention and management of H1N1 influenza. Among the recommendations:
  • Provide basic information on how to recognize influenza symptoms to all students, faculty and staff, as well as information on how they should take care of themselves if ill.
  • Establish mechanisms to monitor pandemic influenza virus activity and develop processes for reporting staff and student illness above normal expected absenteeism levels to local public health officials.
  • Students, staff or faculty who become ill should be encouraged to self-isolate until their symptoms resolve and they are feeling well.
  • Consider developing plans to group students with influenza in one dorm area as a measure to contain the spread of the virus for on-campus residences.
  • High-touch surfaces should be cleaned at least twice daily. These include such things as doorknobs, faucet handles, computer keyboards and telephones.
  • The decision to close schools – either in anticipation of disease, or more typically in response to outbreaks – lies at the discretion of appropriate local authorities. The Public Health Agency of Canada does not recommend widespread proactive closures of universities at this time.
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