Swine Flu U; Preventing H1N1 at Universities

Murray, KY – The CDC reports the H1N1 swine flu Pandemic is most threatening to people under the age of 25. As we continue our regional Swine Flu coverage, Angela Hatton reports on how Murray State University and other higher learning institutions, who house the highest at-risk group, are planning for the flu's onset.

The waiting room at Murray State University's Health Services is part of the campus's front lines in wellness support. Boxes of tissues wait in easy-to-reach locations among the rows of chairs and tables. A bulletin board decorated with cut-out water droplets and paper towels encourages students to wash their hands thoroughly. Campus Health Educator Judy Lyle says only a few students have come in so far with questions about swine flu. They haven't seen anyone yet who has the virus, but Lyle says the staff will evaluate them like any other patient if they do.

"Now with these viral conditions, unfortunately there's not a whole lot you can for it but self-care measures and time. If we get a student who is acutely ill, we would go further by referring to nurse practitioner or a physician either here on campus or in the community."

But Murray State, along with other higher education institutions in the region, have implemented measures to reduce the number of students who come down with swine flu. Since before school started, university officials have been planning for a pandemic H1N1 outbreak. Communication Assistant Vice President Catherine Sivills says about four weeks ago the campus consolidated planning efforts into one task force.

"We have representatives from the academic side of the house. We also have the administrative side of the house. We have facilities management represented, student affairs represented, housing, dining all other those areas that students touch represented. And of course, the presidents' office is represented."

Sivills is also on the task force. She says the biggest concern on campus has been encouraging students to practice good hygiene measures, like frequent hand washing. They've worked to reach students with important information, handing out swine flu flyers to those returning to residence halls this semester and giving prevention tips on MSU's weekly television program and e-newsletter, Roundabout Murray.

"Student Affairs decided to purchase an ad in the Murray State News which we know a lot of students read as well as faculty and staff, and ran an ad reminding students of the importance of good hygiene and if you are sick, please follow these guidelines. And so we've made those efforts."

For the latest swine flu updates, Sivills urges people to go MSU's website and click on the alert button.

"It's on the right hand column and it's bright red and got a yellow color in it. So it's pretty easy to find."

Other colleges have implemented similar measures. Bob Hammonds is the Environmental Health and Safety Crisis Management Director for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, which in our region has campuses in Paducah, Madisonville, and Hopkinsville. Hammonds says KCTCS has been preparing for pandemic flu since the outbreak of bird flu in Asia. Each of the system's member colleges has a detailed pandemic flu plan that's been updated for the new H1N1.

So far, Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, is the only higher education campus nearby to report any swine flu cases, with two likely and eleven suspected. Murray State's Catherine Sivills says if cases start popping up locally, they'll report it as soon as possible. MSU's flu task force has also talked about the worst case scenario in which the number of people sick means shutting down.

"If we did close down campus, one option we would have is maybe doing a long weekend closing, so closing on a Thursday, giving people the weekend to heal. We've heard that a typical flu could last five to seven days. So if you get a good break there where people are at home away from campus that might help everyone get better and then get back on track."

For now, students and employees can protect themselves by getting seasonal flu shots at area clinics. Sivills says the university is watching for word on the new H1N1 vaccine, which is slated for release in October.

"If it is made available, we will offer it on campus."

The MSU H1N1 task force plans to meet regularly as long as the virus is an issue for the university, and Sivills says the more threat the illness poses, the more active they will be. She says right now the university doesn't want to create too much fear. Health Services's Judy Lyle agrees. Lyle says there's no doubt about the importance of getting the information out.

"But unfortunately some of this goes to scaring people. Even though what we've tried to do is very positive and hopefully proactive, getting people getting to think proactively. Still, there's enough information out there that's scary and sometimes people only hear the scary stuff rather than the stuff that they can do to help themselves."

Here's the biggest message universities and colleges want to put out: don't panic. It's important to cover your mouth when you cough; by all means, get vaccinated; and make sure if you do get sick to stay home and rest up. But health officials agree there's no reason to be unnecessarily worried. It's just the flu.