By DAN REYNOLDS, senior editor of Risk & Insurance®
As a new school year rolls around, so does a renewed concentration to exposures to novel strains of H1N1, the so-called swine flu that broke out last spring, hospitalizing 7,693 people and killing 522 globally, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Centers for Disease Control.
Because one of the groups most susceptible to the disease is the 18 to 24 age group, higher-education risk managers in the United States have a lot of work on their hands as school starts.
From talking to several university risk managers, indications are that they have been doing plenty over the last few months.
"Well, it's coming, slow and torturous," said Nick Tworischuk, the associate treasurer at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Tworischuk, like other risk managers, said the focus now at his school is on education and communication.
One key development is that CDC guidelines for quarantine have changed significantly since last year. Rather then the previous seven-day quarantine period, this year the CDC is recommending that students who may be infected wait until 24 hours after their fever has subsided before returning to the general population.
Dave Pajak of Syracuse University and his colleagues have created a 25-person pandemic flu committee that is working with Onondaga County, N.Y., health officials on communication protocols that will have university officials reporting absence and sinus flu infection rates to the county.
Using "Otto the Orange," the school's mascot, Syracuse University is also doing what many other schools are doing, launching an information campaign that will try to drive home the importance of basic hygiene, coughing into your elbow instead of into the atmosphere, washing your hands frequently and using hand sanitizers at work stations.
In Nashville this September, Pajak and Larry Stephens of Indiana University will be giving a presentation at the University Risk Management and Insurance Association's annual conference on what their schools are doing to prepare.
How heavy the flu will come is anybody's guess. but there were reports in late August that as many as 100 students at Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia were displaying symptoms of swine flu.
Jay Butler, the director of the CDC's H1N1 vaccine task force, reported in a press conference Aug. 21 that the states of Alaska and Maine were reporting "widespread" influenza activity. But how wide a path the flu will cut remains unsure.
"We may see lots of flu activity in September and October, on the other hand, we may not," Butler told reporters in August.
The CDC is estimating that it can have between 45 million and 52 million doses of vaccine available by mid-October. It thinks it can have weekly vaccine availability of about 195 million doses by the end of the year.
Tworischuk said institutions are in a difficult position. They have to defend themselves against staff or students who felt the school should have shut down sooner than it did. They also have to defend themselves against student claims that schools deprived them of education due to closures.
Universities are going to be working with faculty to make sure that their attendance policies are getting some flexibility built into them with just those liabilities in mind.
August 28, 2009
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