With health experts warning of a possible pandemic, university and county health officials and the USC Office of Student Affairs are taking special steps to mitigate the spread of H1N1 influenza and are warning students to be especially careful this flu season.
Building on the school’s experience handling last year’s norovirus outbreak, Student Affairs has formed a plan in case H1N1 hits the university. Officials intend to set up a telephone triage center where students who might have contracted the virus can receive free medical advice, as well as an online system sick students can use to order meals, so they don’t infecting others.
“We are strongly encouraging students, faculty and staff to stay home as soon as they get sick until 24 hours after their fever is gone,” said Dr. Lawrence Neinstein, executive director of the University Park Health Center.
Neinstein and Vice President for Student Affairs Michael L. Jackson have already sent a letter to parents and students warning of the virus and offering prevention tips.
In October, in conjunction with the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Health, the university is planning to distribute the seasonal flu vaccine for free.
Although the vaccination will only serve as protection from the seasonal flu virus, Neinstein said the university hopes to conduct another free vaccination program after the government releases the pandemic H1N1 vaccine in October.
“As soon as we get [the vaccine], we will talk about how we can get it out to students,” Neinstein said. “We would like to get as many students under 24 vaccinated because that is the group Public Health has said is the first high-risk priority.”
According to Dr. Laurene Mascola, chief of the Acute Communicable Disease Control Program for the Department of Public Health, people younger than 50 are at greater risk of contracting H1N1 because they have never had contact with a similar strain.
University students are especially vulnerable because of their high population densities around college campuses, Mascola said.
“Going to mass gatherings, subways and large apartments put you at higher risk for contracting the virus,” Mascola said. “…Dormitories will be more at risk because [students] are living in close quarters.”
University health officials are also urging students to refrain from taking Tamiflu — the most widely-used influenza treatment and prevention drug — if they feel sick, because overuse may cause the virus to become resistant.
“[Tamiflu] is not a cure-all and will, at most, reduce symptoms by 24 hours,” Neinstein said. “It should be saved for those who have been hospitalized or suffer from chronic illness like cancer, diabetes and asthma.”
Tamiflu can also be given as a prophylactic to students with compromised immune systems if they have been exposed to the virus.
However, Mascola said this approach still may not prevent students from contracting the virus.
“Once you get flu in the community, you are going to be exposed to the virus every three or four days,” she said.
The pandemic H1N1 virus is a new strain combining human, avian and swine genes, but health officials say the virus is nothing like the 1918 influenza epidemic — a form of H1N1 — that infected more than half a billion people, mostly young adults.
“Don’t panic. People hear the words ‘pandemic swine flu’ and freak out,” Mascola said. “People who are healthy should not have a problem — you feel junky and move on.”
Barsegh Barseghian, a sophomore majoring in biology who transferred to USC this year, said his community college sent out messages to students last year warning them to take special precautions against H1N1 influenza.
“I didn’t take it to be a big deal,” Barseghian said. “I just took the careful precautions and did not go around sick people.”
USC health officials say the best way to prevent the spread of H1N1 is to get vaccinated and stay home if flu-like symptoms appear. Taking smaller precautions, such as frequent hand-washing and sneezing into the crook of the arm, is also recommended.
“If you have a fever, wear a mask if you are walking outside of your room,” Neinstein said. “You should not be going out because you are just going to spread the infection.”