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Monday, September 14,2009

OU and local officials prepare for swine-flu pandemic

By Athens NEWS Staff

The administration, faculty and staff at Ohio University and local health officials are taking the swine flu pandemic seriously and have been preparing for a local outbreak since last year.

With several clinically confirmed cases of swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, in Athens County already and probably many more that have not been confirmed, university and community health agencies are spreading the word about how to spot swine flu and how to stay healthy during the pandemic, said Charles Hammer, administrator for the Athens City-County Health Department.

"H1N1 is unique because it seems to strike younger people more readily than the rest of the population," said David Hopka, OU's assistant vice president for safety and risk management. With so many students living and taking classes together, the university community must be especially aware of its risks, Hopka said.

As of last week, one student at OU had a case of Influenza A, of which H1N1 is a subset, but because the case was isolated, the student was not tested for H1N1, Hopka said.

The swine flu has symptoms similar to the seasonal flu, such as fever, headache, cough, respiratory infection, aches and pains, and sometimes vomiting and diarrhea, Hammer said. It can be very debilitating and complications from the virus can be potentially deadly, Hammer said.

The university's Office of Safety and Risk Management has been working with OU's Hudson Health Center, the OU College of Osteopathic Medicine and the City-County Health Department to draft a plan to deal with the potential outbreak of the H1N1 flu virus that has been declared by the World Health Organization a pandemic, Hopka said.

The university and the Health Department both expect to receive doses of the H1N1 vaccine that has yet to be released, but the federal Centers for Disease Control has not announced when the vaccine will be available or how many doses will be given out, Hammer said.

The vaccine probably will first be made available to vulnerable populations, mainly young people from 6 months to 24 years old. Since children under 6 months old cannot receive the vaccine, their caregivers will be given the shot, Hammer said. Pregnant women, health-care workers and first responders are also targeted to receive the vaccine, Hammer added.

Most vaccines will be distributed through normal channels like doctors' offices and hospitals, but local health officials are planning to go into public schools and vaccinate students from kindergarten through 12th grade, Hammer said. No student will be forced to get the vaccine.

The state of Ohio will receive an extra $28.9 million for H1N1 preparedness from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to a press release from the Ohio Department of Health. This money, added to what the state has received since July, brings the total federal aid for vaccine distribution to $50.7 million in Ohio.

This money is distributed to local health departments, and Hammer said the City-County Health Department will receive $100,000 for materials, supplies and personnel to treat the H1N1 virus. Much of the money will go toward tracking the disease for testing in order to monitor who is most severely affected by it, according to Hammer.

As for OU students, the university remains unsure how many vaccines it will receive from the CDC and will not know until late October or November, Hopka said.

THE UNIVERSITY IS NOT waiting for the vaccine before taking precautions into its own hands, though. OU's Office of Marketing and Communications has set up a Web site,, in order to answer questions about the virus and to keep the community informed about the university's response to it.

"We have gotten good guidance from the Centers for Disease Control that reinforce the planning we've put in place," Hopka said. Information and education are key parts of OU's plan to limit the spread of the infection on campus.

OU has designated 25 rooms in various residence halls and another 34 in Bromley Hall for students who need to "self-isolate" themselves if they become ill with the flu, Hopka said. Dining services will prepare nutritious meals that other students can take to their friends in self-isolation, Hopka said. The university will be encouraging students to develop their own buddy systems for getting food back and forth to sick students.

Students who feel ill should go to Hudson Health Center, Hopka said, where they will be immediately screened if they have flu-like symptoms.

While in the past students have been encouraged by some professors to attend class even if they're feeling slightly ill, Executive Vice President and Provost Pam Benoit and Faculty Senate Chair Joe McLaughlin are encouraging faculty to consider adjusting their attendance policies to the reality that students should not come to class if they experience any H1N1 symptoms.

In an e-mail sent out to all faculty, McLaughlin and Benoit ask professors and instructors to consider how they can change their syllabi in the event of an outbreak, how they can use technology to avoid contact with ill students, and how to help students make up for lost time after an outbreak.

"The university is being very responsible about this, and I think faculty are as well," McLaughlin told The Athens NEWS. "The university is doing what it needs to do and doing a good job preparing faculty and staff and students for this."

Because many schools on the semester system went back to class weeks before OU, the university has had the opportunity to learn from how these schools have dealt with H1N1 outbreaks, said Scott Titsworth, a professor of communication studies.

"OU has had a proactive versus reactive approach," he said.

Titsworth teaches Communication 101, where he will have 400 people meeting in a classroom. In the past, he said he encouraged students to err on the side of coming to class, but this year he changed his syllabus to err on the side of not coming to class if they suspect they might have the flu. Titsworth is also considering video taping his lectures in the event of a large-scale H1N1 outbreak.

As for treating H1N1, a sick person just needs to rest and find someone to help take care of him or her, since the disease can be very debilitating. In some cases that involve severe dehydration, the sick person should go to the hospital to receive fluids. Also in severe cases, doctors may prescribe anti-viral drugs to lessen the effects of the disease, but these drugs cannot cure the virus completely, Hammer said.

Health officials will be very selective about patients receiving the anti-viral drugs, because a limited number of the drugs exist, Hammer said. They are only for the severely ill, he added.

"We don't want students to be scared. We want students to take precautions," said Kent Smith, vice president for student affairs. The university has purchased wipes and hand-sanitizer for offices across campus and has made sure that cleaning services are using the best-possible cleaning solutions, Smith said.


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