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The H1N1 Flu (Swine Flu) Outbreak
October 22, 2009: To the Rensselaer Community
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From: Leslie Lawrence, M.D.
Medical Director, Student Health Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

H1N1 Update

As of October 21, we have experienced 137 cases of influenza among students on the Troy campus. Some 37 students have active cases of the illness. Of those, nine are in isolation rooms and 28 are recuperating at home with their families. The remaining 100 students are fully recovered. In addition, several faculty and staff members have reported influenza-like illnesses.

Our daily caseload has remained fairly static since October 4 with about seven to eight new cases each day. The one important exception to this is the noticeable increase in the number of ill students we see immediately following each weekend.

Do not attend a sporting or social event if you feel sick. The H1N1 influenza can be easily mistaken for a severe cold by some patients. When in doubt, do not attend an event where you could spread any illness to others. At weekend events on or off campus, continue to wash your hands (pack small hand sanitizers if necessary or use the sanitizers around campus) and keep a distance between yourself and others. I realize that can be difficult in tight places like football bleachers or the seats of the Fieldhouse, which is why it is so important that sick people stay home. Remember, you can contract the flu from someone who does not yet appear ill. You can also spread it before you feel ill.

This advice is particularly important given that this weekend is Family Weekend on the Troy campus. There will be a huge increase in the number of visitors and events on campus. Young siblings and other visitors at risk of serious complications from the flu will be on and around campus throughout the festivities. I would very much like to see everyone have a good time with their families without a noticeable jump in the number of flu cases come Monday and Tuesday mornings. Please, practice good hygiene throughout the weekend and avoid events if you are sick.

The moral of the story: use extra caution during weekend events to protect yourselves, family, and friends.

I have received several questions from students and parents multiple times. The first is why we are not confirming each suspected case of influenza with a test swab for either influenza A or H1N1. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is currently recommending that confirmatory testing occur only in cases where the patient needs to be hospitalized. According to the CDC, virtually all influenza-like illness is being caused by H1N1 at this time; there is no seasonal influenza currently circulating. Therefore, the CDC has directed physicians to assume that all outpatient influenza-like illness is H1N1 without any confirmatory testing.

The second and third common questions are: why are you not regularly using Tamiflu, and why are you isolating for seven days when the CDC states you may return to work or classes 24 hours after you have no fever? In response, I can report that the CDC recommends that Tamiflu be reserved for those who are at the highest risk of getting severely ill from flu, such as pregnant women, people with diabetes or asthma, or disabled children. Several recent studies have shown that most patients infected with the virus will be contagious for at least seven days, and this is why we now recommend that patients stay home until they have been free of symptoms for 24 hours, or for seven days after first getting sick, whichever is longer.

The following link takes you to an article about a study that was done at the Air Force Academy on students with H1N1, and provides the full context for those answers: http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20091020/hl_nm/us_flu_academy_1. We have decided to take this conservative approach to isolation in order to slow the spread of the illness here at Rensselaer. It also allows us to monitor students longer for any potential complications.

Unfortunately, the H1N1 vaccine will arrive later than previously expected. I am currently getting information that the first doses will arrive on October 30. We are preparing to hold vaccination clinics across campus the first week of November, as long as we receive the amount we have requested. If smaller amounts arrive we will first try to vaccinate pregnant women, anyone caring for children less than 6 months of age, emergency and healthcare workers, and students with major medical illnesses, per the direction of the CDC.

Students should continue to contact the Student Health Center if they are experiencing flu-like symptoms. Faculty and staff with flu-like symptoms should report their illness via our H1N1 Web site, stay home from work 5-7 days, and contact their personal physicians for treatment. The most accurate information on our current number of cases on campus is vital to keeping the outbreak under control.

As always, your best protections against the flu include:

  • Washing your hands often, especially after shaking hands with others (hand disinfectants may be used if there is no access to soap and water);
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick;
  • Covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing;
  • Covering your mouth and nose with the inside of your elbow if you do not have a tissue;
  • Not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, especially after contact with others; and
  • Keeping a three-foot [one-meter] distance between yourself and anyone who is ill.

Please take care.

Leslie Lawrence, M.D.
Medical Director, Student Health Center, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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