Yale prepares for swine flu

As public health officials across the nation prepare for a swine flu outbreak this fall, administrators at Yale are bracing for the worst.

Citing the highly contagious nature of the disease and the “high spread” character of most student living spaces, University administrators and health officials said it is likely that large numbers of students will come down with the bug this semester.

In the past few days alone, Yale University Health Services Director Paul Genecin said YUHS has been notified of at least four cases of “influenza-like illness” — the term now being used to describe what health officials presume to be swine flu — among Yale students. Health officials cannot officially confirm that the cases are swine flu, as the disease’s prevalence has made diagnostic testing on a case-by-case basis impractical.

“In order to confirm something is swine flu, we have to send the samples to the state Health Department, and they are no longer running those tests,” he said. “We all know it’s swine flu.”

He added that, to his knowledge, as of Monday those four students stricken with influenza-like illness were not yet on campus. But at least one student currently on campus has been reported to have influenza-like illness, according to a student who delivered meals to the individual.

Yesterday, along with their standard registration materials, undergraduate students were given an official Yale University guide to preventing, detecting and treating swine flu while on campus. The one-page, double-sided guide advises students to contact YUHS and stay in their rooms if they develop any symptoms of the bug, which include fever, body aches and a cough.

University policy strongly advises that students who contract the flu stay in their rooms until 24 hours after their temperature returns to normal. A group of graduate-level Nursing School students has been organized to care for those who are confined to their rooms. Other individuals residing in the room will be advised to sleep elsewhere, and meals will be delivered to the ill individual by volunteers.

Although comprehensive plans are in place to deal with those who are sick, administrators emphasized that the most important thing students can do is take a few standard steps to prevent catching and transmitting the disease.

“Wash your hands and cover your coughs and be mindful of yourself and if you’re sick stay home,” said Maria Bouffard, the University’s director of emergency management. “That really is the biggest role in the entire plan — for people to be prepared and do what they do every day to keep themselves healthy.”

To help students help themselves, the University has installed approximately 200 portable Purell stands in various locations around campus, Yale Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said.

Officials also advise students to be prepared in case they fall ill and need to remain in their room for a few days. In addition to having a supply of over-the-counter medication such as Motrin or Tylenol on hand, they also recommend that students keep their rooms stocked with tissues and hand sanitizer to “avoid the need to make trips out in public while you are sick and contagious,” according to the YUHS swine flu Web site.

Currently, there is no vaccine available to immunize individuals against the swine flu, though a vaccine has been developed and is expected to ship beginning in mid-October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. YUHS will receive the vaccine from the state, which could initially receive as many as 1.8 million doses, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Genecin said he believes YUHS will begin vaccinating high-priority members of the community in early November and that it is likely the University will have only a small amount of vaccine to distribute. YUHS intends to distribute the vaccine in accordance with the CDC’s recommendations, prioritizing pregnant women, children between 6 months and 4 years of age, children between the ages of 5 and 18 with chronic medical conditions, individuals caring for children, and health care providers directly interacting with patients.

During the summer, Genecin said YUHS saw between 20 and 30 individuals with the influenza-like illness, the majority of whom were high school students participating in a summer program at the University.

“We’ve seen so far a good deal of influenza activity, which is very unusual for the summertime, but [it’s been a] very mild illness and we’re hoping that trend continues,” he said.

So far, no members of the Yale community have needed to stay at YUHS overnight due to serious cases of swine flu.

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