This year’s flu season is shaping up to be among the worst on recent record, with over 100,000 laboratory-confirmed cases as of last week, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The dominant strain of this flu season is H3N2, which can cause more severe symptoms and explains the higher than usual incidence rates, says Dr. Chrysan Cronin, Director and Assistant Professor of Public Health.
“In general, we see more hospitalizations and deaths due to flu when H3N2 is dominant,” said Cronin. “However, we will need to wait until the season is over to really be able to compare this flu season.”
In Lehigh County, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reports nearly 1,200 confirmed cases, good enough for the eighth highest total by county in the Commonwealth. Over the weekend, Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest, a large hospital located in the nearby Allentown suburbs, received national media attention for adding surge tents, part of its strategy to manage the influx of flu patients to their emergency departments.
But here at Muhlenberg, the situation is not quite as dire, at least not yet — since the beginning of the spring semester, the College’s Health Center reports that less than 15 students have influenza or an influenza-like illness. With the semester now in its fourth week, and with federal officials warning that the peak of the season has not passed, efforts on campus are focused squarely on prevention.
Similar to years past, cleaning has increased in high-traffic areas across campus, including twice-daily in all dormitory bathrooms and common areas.
“This year we were much more proactive in getting the cleaning operation up and running, and many of the prepartions were ready before students returned to campus,” said Brynnmarie Dorsey, the Executive Director of Health and Counseling Services.
Some of the other preparations include various communication efforts through posters and emails about symptoms and strategies to prevent further transmission. The Dean of Students office has also re-opened its “Student Report of Illness” form, last used during the Spring 2017 semester’s norovirus outbreak.
“The purpose of the form is to track influenza and gastrointestinal virus activity on campus,” said Dorsey. “So if there is an area on campus that has a higher incidence than others, we can target cleaning and prevention activities accordingly.”
On college campuses, specifically, the risk of infection is amplified.
“College students live in close quarters, and have a tendency to go to class or to the dining room and other public spaces even when they are sick” said Cronin. “Students who get the flu should heed the advice of the health center and either go home or quarantine themselves so that they do not spread the virus around the campus.
”Of particular note for this year is the College’s efforts to stress “social isolation” for students who feel sick or have a confirmed case of the flu. According to an email sent to students on Jan. 17, those who think they may have the flu and who cannot go home were instructed to “not attend classes or any public gatherings” and return to normal activities after 24 fever-free hours without medication.
But here at Muhlenberg, the situation is not quite as dire
“We’ve provided additional tools and resources to the faculty and staff on how to handle classroom attendance and sick leave policies. We’ve also tailored messaging to students on this, as well,” said Allison Gulati, Dean of Students.
Gulati stressed that prevention efforts began in earnest last semester, with the free flu shot fair in the Brown Hall quad. To date, Health Center nurses have vaccinated approximately 230 students, more than double the usual number, said Dorsey, although this estimate does not account for students who may have received flu shots off campus.
Although H3N2 was included in the vaccine, it mutated during the manufacturing process; however, the vaccine is still recommended for everyone.
“Getting the vaccine does still protect against the other circulating strains and gives some protection against H3N2,” said Cronin. “People who are vaccinated generally have less severe cases and recover faster.”
“It’s not too late to get vaccinated,” said Dorsey, who added that the Health Center will continue to offer free flu shots as long as the supply from the Allentown Health Bureau exists.
But despite the increased vaccination efforts, Muhlenberg faces the same challenge that other college campuses struggle with annually — convincing students to get vaccinated. The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases estimates that the average college campus has flu vaccination rates ranging from eight to thirty nine percent.
“The bottom line is that we should all be vaccinated to protect not only ourselves, but others in our community,” added Cronin. “And if we do get the flu, we should be vigilant in making sure we do not put others at risk.”