Colleges Prepare For Swine Flu

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As students stream to college, so does the swine flu bug. New federal recommendations released this past week aim to keep colleges open if swine flu appears on campus. Most colleges are focusing on isolating sick students in dorm rooms. But that is not an easy task, given all the people-mixing that goes on in a typical dorm.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Students are flooding back to colleges across the country this weekend. And as mom and dad pull away from the dorm-side curb, their kids are unpacking clothes, books, toaster ovens, and in a few cases at least, swine flu.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, that presents a complicated challenge for universities because so many kids live in such close quarters.

LARRY ABRAMSON: It is a truth universally acknowledged that college students and good hygiene do not often go together. And early indications are that campuses could be hotbeds for swine flu. When sororities assembled for a rush week at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge this past week, about 50 students ended up with the flu. Herb Vincent is a spokesperson for LSU.

Mr. HERB VINCENT (Spokesperson, Louisiana State University): Those who could go home were sent home. Others were sent - we tried to put them in isolated areas within their dorms or sorority houses.

ABRAMSON: The expectation is that after a few days at home or in the dorm, students will be able to return to school. The response at LSU is typical of what schools nationwide are planning as flu season approaches.

On Thursday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told schools that new federal guidelines stress isolating students to keep schools open.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): Ill students need to stay in their dorm rooms until they have been free of a fever for at least 24 hours. They should ask a friend or roommate to care for them by bringing in meals and any possible medication.

ABRAMSON: The University of Virginia has turned that recommendation into a system. Dr. James Turner, the health director there, says students are signing up as volunteers to bring meals to any sick students.

Dr. JAMES TURNER (Director of Health, University of Virginia): Basically take the ill student's identification card or dining hall pass, take it over to the dining hall, collect the meals and bring it back to the student in their room.

ABRAMSON: That should reduce the number of students exposed to the virus. Turner says the healthy roommate may be asked to move his or her mattress to another space for a little while.

Some schools are taking the isolation strategy a step further. Anita Barkin, director of student health services at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says students who feel sick are first being asked to call in. If their symptoms sound flu-like, they'll be asked to come to the clinic without infecting everyone in their path.

Ms. ANITA BARKIN (Director of Student Health Services, Carnegie Mellon University): We direct them to come to the back door of the clinic and ring the bell. They're greeted by a nurse, asked to put a mask on, placed in an exam room.

ABRAMSON: Barkin says that after the exam, students believed to have the flu will be sent to an isolation dorm. Carnegie Mellon is lucky enough to have space for a few dozen students.

Ms. BARKIN: Right now, we're using a building that's been vacated by a sorority.

ABRAMSON: But many schools say they just don't have the space for a flu dorm. They'll be asking students to stay put in their own rooms. Colleges are, of course, hoping to stop the flu from arriving in the first place. Students will see lots of hand sanitizers, lots of cover-your-cough warnings. Even Facebook and Twitter will feature federal warnings that physical contact, a reason some students come to college in the first place, could spread the flu.

James Turner of the University of Virginia is telling students to cut back on sharing.

Dr. TURNER: To not share drinking glasses, not share eating utensils, avoid sharing smoking materials.

ABRAMSON: Beyond that party-pooping message, the vast majority of students probably won't feel much impact from the coming flu season. But most college students are within the age group felt to be at risk. College officials are hoping that fact will entitle them to their share of the swine flu vaccine when it becomes available.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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