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Health Officials Shut Down, Probe Harvard Campus After 'Probable' Flu Case03:29

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The clinic at the Harvard University Dental School and the school itself in Boston are closed Friday because of a suspected case of swine flu as doctors test a third-year dental student showing signs of the flu.

Test results are pending, but in the meantime, Harvard has also canceled classes at its medical school and school of public health, as a precaution because they're on the same Boston campus as the dental school.

For more on the situation, WBUR spoke with Dr. Barbara Ferrer, executive director of the Boston Public Health Commission.

Tell us more about the case at the Harvard Dental School. Why did the city choose to shut down the school's clinic, even though the case of swine flu is not yet confirmed?

This is what we call a "probable case" of swine flu. This is a situation where the state lab has ruled out seasonal flu and we're awaiting confirmation of results from the CDC in Atlanta. The reason we take this seriously -- and we again are acting with national guidance on this -- is because this probable case, the student in fact not only has the symptoms and we've ruled out seasonal flu, but he had exposure to somebody who had been in Mexico recently and had been ill on returning from Mexico. So we've got what we call a credible chain here of circumstances that allows us to think that this case is likely to be confirmed by the national CDC.

In these situations we work very closely with Harvard to figure out what makes sense given the circumstances around the student and the student's possible exposure of the virus to other students in the immediate area.

Do we know whether this dental school student if the student had contact with patients at the dental school? And if so, what are you doing about that?

So we immediately, upon notification by the school of this case, began a very thorough investigation late in the day yesterday, which includes interviewing the student's contacts, looking at the places the student had been at the point where we think the student was infectious and making sure we really have our facts straight. We'll be issuing a report later on this afternoon — not a written report but a verbal report -- with the preliminary findings from our investigation. We're still looking to see whether or not this student actually had any contact with patients. The student would be typically involved in some of clinical rotations at this point in their studies, we just haven't ascertained whether he was in clinic on the day he felt ill.

When will the test results be back on whether or not this dental school student does or does not have the swine flu?

We're waiting from the national CDC and, as you know, it can take a few days for us to get the confirmation. One of the reasons why Harvard chose to suspend classes and suspend the clinic today was to allow us both to complete our investigation -- it's much easier to do that if we have easy access to everybody-- and also to be sure that we have time to get those findings from CDC either to confirm that this is in fact a case of H1N1 virus or in fact to say it's not a case and we do not need to continue with precautionary measures.

We spoke with a Boston University School of Public Health professor this morning who said that hospitals in Boston are, in his opinion, "not at all prepared" to handle a surge in demand that would come from many cases of the flu, should there be many cases. Respond to that.

I'm surprised with that comment to be honest because we've been working for the last three years with the hospitals in the Greater Boston area to in fact make sure that we have what we call "surge capacity." That's the ability to add large numbers of both beds and capacity to see patients. In Boston we also have community health centers that we're working with as well because some patients do not need to go into the hospital to get seen. I feel very comfortable — as I'm sure the state does — with the surge capacity.

Now again, with any virus, you have to really be vigilant about both preparing and then tracking what the epidemic may look like and staying ahead of that by being very well prepared. I feel like in this state — and particularly in this city — we have close collaboration with the health centers and with the hospitals. We've already had a conference call yesterday with both all of the hospitals in the Boston area and all of the health centers to just make sure people have the supplies and the equipment they need should in fact we have a lot of cases in the city of Boston.

What advice are you giving?

H1N1 flu  -- what we've called in the past the swine flu — it's transmitted through respiratory droplets, and that means when someone coughs or sneezes. So, obviously, the first line of defense for everybody is to make sure that people who are sick, particularly with symptoms of respiratory disease, stay home and keep themselves out of circulation in the general public. And that means adults and children. Children shouldn't be going to school who are feeling ill and adults shouldn't be going to work who are feeling ill.

The second step everyone can take is just be vigilant about washing your hands. Oftentimes viruses travel very easily from your hands to your nose to your mouth and the more often you wash your hands the less likely you are to transmit the virus through that route.

And the third thing that we're asking people to do at this point in time is make sure that you're prepared if your child falls ill or if you fall ill. You have a doctor or you have a medical care provider that you can call and contact. You go in on the advice of your medical doctor to seek medical attention if you're feeling ill and that in fact we prevent transmission of this virus by every individual taking responsibility for monitoring his or her own health.

This program aired on May 1, 2009.

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