By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
One night inside a George Washington University fraternity, a sky-diving, weight-lifting, energy-drink-swilling group of brothers gathered around a pool table, boasting about how no matter what their college, government and parents might say, they don't need any swine flu vaccine, thanks very much.
The men of Sigma Phi Epsilon, 30 of whom share 16 bathrooms and 15 bedrooms in a house on 23rd Street NW in Washington, don't buy the idea that their lair is a perfect petri dish for spreading the flu.
They view the virus's threat as a media-concocted sensation. They fend off their parents' -- and even their girlfriends' parents' -- worries, much as they do concerns about any other risky behavior, such as parachuting out of an airplane for an upcoming frat event.
Their mind-set: They'll be fine. Even if they get the bug, they'll still be fine.
"I don't need it," said Sal Marchesano, 21, a senior, as macho laughter ripples across the recreation room, which is adorned with a replica of a human skull and a mostly full bottle of hand sanitizer. "They would have to come here to give me the shot. No. They would have to come to my room. When I'm free."
Although college-age people are among the most susceptible of all age groups for contracting swine flu, that distinction is not scaring most into taking precautions, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Nearly seven out of 10 people in the 18-to-29 age group said they did not plan to heed warnings to get vaccinated, the poll found. (About 62 percent of those 30 to 64 and 53 percent of those 65 and older also said they planned to skip the vaccine.)
At the frat house, many brothers said they think of swine flu mainly as fodder for punch lines. Some have taken to taunting one of their members -- who since September has been infected twice with a flulike illness -- with the nickname Fruitfly. (Fruitfly doesn't much care for the moniker.)
The Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers see forgoing the vaccine as no riskier than many of their other behaviors. "I text and call while I am driving," said Marchesano, sitting in the rec room with Matt Stratton, 20, and another fraternity brother, Justin Fiorilli, 20.
Stratton, a junior who said he wants to be a doctor, lives by a classic collegiate dictum -- carpe diem, or seize the day. "There are any number of things I do," he said. "I cross the street when the light's not green. We're talking about going skydiving."
That sense of invincibility might be one reason why, according to the nonprofit Commonwealth Fund, nearly 30 percent of adults 19 to 29 go without health insurance, and more than two-thirds of unintentional deaths among 18- to 22-year-olds involve a motor vehicle accident, according to federal data.
Puzzled experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they are so concerned about young people's lack of concern about swine flu that they are conducting surveys to tease out the basis for the blasé attitudes. Many young adults' belief in the seriousness of the outbreak is diminished by what they deem hyperbolic media coverage, said Kristine Sheedy, a CDC spokeswoman.
"I think it's been blown up to a bigger deal by the media," Stratton said.
Fiorilli asked: "Did you notice there was a seasonal flu shot offered at GW? I wasn't in that line."
"My mom was pressing me to go and get it," Marchesano said. "She said if they offer it, 'You better be the first in line,' and I told her I had class. I mean, she found times when I'd be able to wait in line. I was just like, 'No. I am busy. I am fine. I'm getting enough sleep.' "
Knowing laughs give way to sighs. "My mom has said the same things," Stratton said. He also said his father urged him to buy a mask -- he did, and promptly stuffed it in a drawer.
"I've never gotten a seasonal flu shot in my life," Fiorilli said. "I roll the dice every year, and I am going to roll the dice this year. I mean, we're constantly interacting with people here. There's no way to get around it."
(For the record, Fiorilli caved and got the flu shot while visiting his parents in Florida last weekend.)
Influenza-like illnesses are spreading on college campuses with efficient swiftness. Since August, nearly 56,000 students out of more than 3 million have been infected, according to the American College Health Association.
GWU has 600 flu cases; in a non-swine autumn, that number would be zero, school officials said. At the University of Virginia, health officials have diagnosed 540 cases.
"The vast majority of students don't worry about this at all," said James Turner, president of the college health group and director of U-Va.'s student health department. In a survey at the Charlottesville campus, he said, "only 54 percent -- maybe this is good -- say they never share a Solo cup or smoking material, which means there's 46 percent who continue sharing and smoking hookah pipes and cigarettes."
Fiorilli said he faces greater risks every day. "We're in the middle of exams. I may sleep two hours a day. I live on energy drinks. You talk to a doctor about our lifestyle, and they're going to say, 'Don't worry about swine flu; you need to worry about a heart attack.' "
"I pound the Mountain Dews," Marchesano said.
"I pound the Monster" energy drink, Fiorilli said. "And 5-Hour Energy. I had a bad experience with that. It was a friend's birthday. I guarantee that 20 years from now, they're going to say this stuff kills ya."
Meanwhile, Stratton's girlfriend and her mother have been nudging him.
The girlfriend, Sara Goldschmidt, a 20-year-old junior, said she "was in Matt's room the other day, and a couple guys walk in, and they nonchalantly were laughing and saying, 'So-and-so has the swine flu. Isn't that funny?' I stood right up and got my bag. I didn't touch anything on the way out. I didn't touch the banisters."
Sara's mother, Karen Goldschmidt, 51, of Westchester County, N.Y., saw Stratton recently and "asked him if he was planning on getting the swine flu shot, and he said, 'No.' I said, 'Wait a minute. . . . I have a vested interest.' "
Despite the resistance, GWU officials are pushing. They requested more than 14,000 swine flu vaccine doses that they hope to receive by mid-November. They've posted ads in newspapers, made announcements on Twitter and Facebook, distributed hand sanitizers to dorms and tacked up posters listing prevention tips.
Still, kids get sick. When they report flu symptoms, they are generally urged to quarantine themselves in their rooms. But staying home might mean the inevitable for their roommates.
At the frat house, Fiorilli cheerfully makes a visiting reporter an offer: "My roommate is sick. Want to see him? He comatosed himself with NyQuil."
Fiorilli doesn't seem a bit worried about catching the flu from the roommate, junior Jed Fluxman, 20. Fiorilli had pink eye recently, and Fluxman was cool about being in such close quarters.
In the darkness of Room 401, which is decorated with a poster depicting John Belushi chugging a bottle of whiskey and another that reads "BEER: Helping White Guys Dance Since 1847," lies Fluxman, half-naked under his bedspread, watching TNT.
He has nearly $100 worth of supplies to do battle with his misery: two bags of Halls cough drops, a homeopathic remedy called Oscillococcinum and, yes, NyQuil.
"Now that I have [swine flu], what's the point in getting the shot?" Fluxman asked.
"Yeah," Fiorilli said. "It's too late."