THURSDAY, Aug. 20, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Unless the swine flu outbreak this fall is worse than expected, U.S. colleges and other post-secondary education centers may not need to cancel classes, federal health officials said in a new advisory issued Thursday.
Outlined at an afternoon press conference, the guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies follows similar recommendations for U.S. schools and businesses.
Above all, campus administrators need to remain flexible as the fall/winter flu season approaches, because the extent and severity of the swine flu outbreak remains uncertain, experts said.
"The guidance we are releasing today explains the steps universities should take to treat students who contract H1N1 and steps to prevent the spread of the virus in a campus," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said at the news conference. "Much of it is common sense."
"We are encouraging students to clean commonly used items in their dorm rooms, such as doorknobs, keyboards and remote controls," Duncan said. "We are asking maintenance staff to redouble their efforts to clean surfaces such as sinks, elevator buttons and classroom desks. Ill students need to stay in their dorm rooms until they are free of fever for at least 24 hours. They should ask a friend or roommate to care for them by bringing in meals and medications."
According to the CDC, more communities may be affected by both the H1N1 swine flu and the seasonal flu in coming months than last spring, and every post-secondary institution needs to have a swine flu action plan in place.
Some of the key points for students and staff:
- Colleges should encourage good flu-preventive hygiene, such as frequent hand washing, routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces, and "coughing etiquette," such as covering a cough or sneeze with a tissue or a sleeve.
- Urge students and staff to get a flu shot once they become available, especially higher-risk individuals, such as pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions such as asthma or diabetes.
- If students do get sick, "self-isolation" is key. Ideally, students who live in dorm-type housing should, if they can, return to the family home for the duration of their illness (using a taxi or private vehicle). If they cannot, they should refrain from close contact with other students, relying on phone, e-mail, texting and the Internet to keep up with schoolwork and family and friends.
- In some cases, a "flu buddy" system might be helpful -- students pair up to exclusively care for each other if one becomes ill. Individuals should leave isolation only after 24 hours have passed without fever (without the use of fever-reducing medicines).
- Students or staff should not require a doctor's note to prove they are ill, since such requirements could swamp already overburdened clinics, the CDC said.
"The recommendations aren't a big change from what we have seen from the New York Department Health and Hygiene," said Kathryn Hutchinson, executive director of student wellness at St. Johns University in New York City.
"We are focusing on patient education," Hutchinson said. "Getting students to recognize that they have to pay attention to the disease and engage in regular and frequent hand washing, they need to pay attention to cough etiquette and if they have any symptoms they can contact student health services. They should not come to school ill, or if they are a resident student they shouldn't go to class," she said.
"We have self-isolation guidelines if students cannot get home," Hutchinson said.
If the H1N1 swine flu became more severe than expected, additional precautions might be advised, the CDC said. This could include keeping sick students and staff home for a full week after symptoms clear up. And it might also involve implementing a "6-foot rule," asking people to maintain that distance from others to help avoid transmission of the virus.
Classes could be suspended if the H1N1 season proves particularly severe, and such decisions should include other mass gatherings such as sporting events and even commencement ceremonies, the CDC said.
The experts stressed that the timely delivery of an H1N1 vaccine could help curb any outbreak. Vaccine trials have already begun in adults, and on Tuesday officials at the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced that two clinical trials testing the effectiveness of candidate vaccines for children are set to "begin shortly."
"Students need to be encouraged, not only to take care of themselves and isolate themselves when they are sick, but, hopefully take advantage of the vaccine when it becomes available," U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said during the press conference.
Federal health officials announced Tuesday that they expect to only have 45 million doses of H1N1 vaccine on hand by Oct. 15, rather than the originally anticipated 120 million doses. After mid-October, 20 million more doses of the vaccine will be shipped each week, officials said.
Find out more on the new guidelines at flu.gov.