Officials prepare for potential H1N1 outbreak

With the start of classes less than a week away, University officials are creating strategies to prevent and handle a potential outbreak of swine flu this fall.

Over the summer, University President Steven Knapp asked a University-comprised task force of doctors, public health experts, and University administrators to create a plan to prevent an outbreak of the flu – and establish a protocol if there were to be a large number of students infected at one time. Five GW students were infected with the virus last May when the illness first made headlines, and health officials across the country are currently bracing for another outbreak when schools reopen in the fall.

“If we are all sick at the same time, and our staff are all sick at the same time… we never had this problem before… so we are kind of looking at different levels of approaching and trying to find a picture of what could be and what measures we could take,” said Dr. Isabel Goldenberg, medical director of Student Health Service.

Sarah Baldassaro, assistant vice president for communications, said that for now, the University is focusing on a educational campaign to help prevent the spread of germs. Baldassaro said hand sanitizer will be readily available in University buildings like residence hall lobbies and common areas where students congregate. The University is also encouraging students to wash their hands, cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze, and stay inside if they are feeling sick.

“According to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], the virus is transmitted through close personal contact,” Baldassaro said. “So it’s making sure you wash your hands regularly, that you don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth, that you don’t share eating or drinking utensils, and if you feel sick, you don’t go to class and you limit your contact with others.”

While a vaccine for swine flu is not yet open to the public, Goldenberg said flu shot clinics for seasonal influenza will begin Sept. 16 and will be held in the Marvin Center.

When available, the swine flu vaccine will be distributed through the D.C. Department of Health, and Goldenberg said she has been in constant contact with the agency to make sure that GW students will be able to receive the immunization.

Though prevention is a large part of the University’s plan, they have been playing with other ideas in case a large number of students were to become infected at the same time.

One idea on the table is utilizing current Blackboard technology, which allows professors to hold virtual classrooms, thereby enabling ill students to participate in academic life even if they are confined to their residence hall rooms.

“We want to make sure that classes are accessible to students that need to stay in their room if they are sick and students would be able to continue to communicate directly through their professors if they are sick,” Baldassaro said. “But the recommendation is to stay in your room if you are not feeling well.”

Another idea is a Sodexo food delivery service, which would allow students confined to their dorm rooms to order food directly to their residence hall room.

“We are looking to be sure that it is food that is appropriate,” Goldenberg said. “That it is healthy, well balanced, soft, if you have a sore throat so you can swallow… trying to replace a little bit the type of care that you would receive at home.”

For now, the University recommends that students utilize the campus advisory system for updates on flu related issues.

“We want to make sure that students who are feeling sick have the services they need and the support they need,” Baldassaro said.

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