Colleges Warned About Fall Flu Outbreaks on Campus

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009; 5:40 PM

Federal officials said Thursday that colleges should consider suspending classes this fall if the H1N1 flu virus begins to cause severe illness in a significantly larger share of students than last spring.

A guidance document released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stresses "self-isolation" of sick students and employees until a full day after fever subsides. Officials urged schools to suspend any rules -- such as penalties for late papers or missed classes, or a required doctor's note -- that might prompt ill individuals to venture out.

"We're hoping we're on track to be out ahead of this virus," said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, in an afternoon conference call with reporters.

Officials said a flu vaccine should be available by mid-October.

Health officials said students can do their part by washing their hands and covering coughs, of course, and also by wiping down keyboards, doorknobs, remote-control devices and other oft-touched items, while colleges should redouble efforts to disinfect elevator buttons and faucet handles.

Schools in the Washington area have already started setting up hand-sanitizer stations and hanging posters teaching flu hygiene. Officials at several schools said they will instruct students to stay in their dorm rooms if they fall ill and to contact the school health office by telephone rather than in person.

The guidance document suggests that ill students should return home if their families live near campus -- and get there by taxi or private car, not bus or train. Those who cannot easily leave campus should stay in their room and pick a "flu buddy," to deliver food and supplies. Schools should consider temporary housing for students who lack private rooms.

Local colleges have struggled with the pivotal question of whether, and when, they might have to suspend operations because of flu. The CDC recommends that class suspension "might be needed when [colleges] cannot maintain normal functioning." The agency says it may recommend class suspension "if the flu starts to cause severe disease in a significantly larger proportion of those affected than occurred during the spring/summer 2009 outbreak."

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