Colleges Seeing Lots of Early Flu
Area Campuses Report No Deaths Tied to Outbreak

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 14, 2009

Flu has hit early and hard on campuses in the Washington region, spawning, at last count, 435 cases of flulike illness at the University of Maryland, 95 at the University of Virginia and several dozen at other institutions.

There has been no report of a college student in the area dying of flu this fall, and U-Md. said the lone hospitalization there involved an underlying medical condition. Health officials at area colleges said most cases have been mild. That is not to say they have been pleasant.

Mark Gonzalez, 21, a junior at U-Md., woke up on the second day of classes with a racking cough and a fever that hovered around 101, even with Tylenol. He went to the campus health center the next day and tested positive for Type A flu, meaning he had probably contracted the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu.

He was issued a surgical mask and sent home.

"It had to be 10 times worse than the regular flu," Gonzalez said. "It was not pleasant at all."

Swine flu appears to have spread to most of the country's colleges and universities. A weekly survey by the American College Health Association found influenza-like illness at 72 percent of schools surveyed as of Sept. 4. The flu is being contracted at a rate of about 18 cases per 10,000 students.

Some colleges have reported no cases; others have counted hundreds. More than 2,000 students at Washington State University have reported flulike illness, according to the Daily Evergreen student newspaper.

Cornell University, in Upstate New York, has reported more than 520 cases, according to the Ithaca Journal newspaper. A Cornell junior died Friday of complications related to flu, at least the second flu-related death of a U.S. college student in the new academic year. A freshman at Troy University in Alabama had died a week earlier.

The InterFraternity Council at Cornell University placed a seven-day moratorium on social events last week, according to the Ithaca Journal report.

In the District, Maryland and Virginia, college health officials have reported at least 50 cases of flu or flulike illness at Georgetown University; 37 at George Washington University; 17 at Virginia Tech; 16 each at Catholic University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County; 10 at American University; six each at Bowie State, Johns Hopkins University and Washington and Lee University; three at George Mason University; two at the U.S. Naval Academy; and one at the College of William and Mary.

"I think we all predicted this would happen," said Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs at U-Md. "It's a surprise in terms of the severity at some places."

Health officials can only guess how many of the thousands of students reporting flulike illness nationwide have contracted swine flu. Colleges typically do not test students to confirm H1N1 infection because the treatment is the same as for seasonal flu. Some schools are reporting confirmed cases of Type A flu, but not all such cases are H1N1.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that 98 percent of current flu cases are H1N1.

Most institutions count and report cases "any way they want," said James Turner, a U-Va. official who is president of the national college health association. The 236 institutions involved in the weekly survey follow strict reporting rules, tabulating all cases reported to campus health officials that meet federal criteria for flulike illness.

At U-Md., flu cases have multiplied without a clear pattern. Officials debunked a rumor that suggested that an entire floor of the Centreville Hall dormitory had been quarantined for flu.

The spread of flu might be abetted by the work ethic of Maryland students, some of whom have resisted advice to stay home from class if they develop telltale symptoms.

"I think they're going to classes ill, and I think that's how it's spreading," Clement said.

There have been some adjustments to social life in College Park. But not many.

"People are still drinking out of the same cups, still playing beer pong," said Frank DiGiovanni, 21, a senior. "People don't seem very conscious of it. That may be why it's spreading."

Sarah O'Haver, a senior who turns 21 Monday, said school leaders are "not scaring people enough" about the virus that struck Gonzalez, who is her boyfriend. She escorted him to the health center for treatment.

"It was just crazy in there," she said. "There were 300 people in urgent care."

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