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Crowded dorms, shared bathrooms and communal eating all make college campuses a giant petri dish for viruses.
Rich Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said colleges could quickly become breeding grounds.
"I have a daughter who went off to college on Sunday, and there are three young women in a dorm room built to accommodate two," Doherty said. "So it’s really tight quarters and that’s the reality that college students and administrators are trying to grapple with."
So they have spent the summer diligently planning for a swine flu outbreak, said Michelle LePore, associate dean of students at Wellesley College.
"We actually don’t know what we’ll see, but we have to have plans to address a multitude of issues," LePore said. "So we are certainly beginning to think about how students could connect virtually to faculty members, if that’s what we need to be doing."
That’s the worst case scenario: a large number of faculty and students are sick with the flu and the campus is shut down, but classes continue online.
Wellesley would isolate a group of students if there’s a small outbreak. So would Tufts Univeristy, which is setting aside a small number of isolation rooms, but is telling students to go home or to a relative’s house if they are sick. Amherst College has three empty dorms ready for hundreds of students if necessary.
College administrators are urging the state to make universities vaccination sites when the shot becomes available in October. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended college students get vaccinated.
Most colleges are focusing now on prevention. They are handing out flyers, hanging posters and tweeting about how to spot and prevent swine flu. First-year students at Tufts are getting hand sanitizer. Harvard, which had an outbreak at the dental school last spring, has a new telephone hot line that will give updates in the event of another H1N1 outbreak.
Wellesley Dean LePore said they are targeting freshmen. "For our incoming students, of course, it’s the first time they are away from home on our campus and we need to get these messages across," LePore said, "so they are thinking about swine flu right away as they come back to campus, and are thinking about good hand hygiene and what we would also call respiratory etiquette."
Respiratory etiquette is a fancy way to say cover your mouth when you cough or your nose when you sneeze. And if you start to feel sick stay in your dorm room or go home.
But when talking to students moving back into dorms at Boston University this week, respiratory etiquette was not top of mind.
"I’m not concerned really at all," said Leslie Baggesen, a senior living in a four-bedroom suit. "It’s like the normal flu -- if you take care of it you’ll be fine."
Ben Simon and Justin Marble are roommates.
"I’m not particularly worried and I don’t think my parents are either," Simon said. "I’m sure it will become more of an issue as the weather changes and things become more of a problem, but right now I’m not thinking about that."
"I’m rooming with him, so we’re both pretty sure we don’t have swine flu," Marble added.
That’s not the sentiment college administrators want to hear. What may start on a college campus could reach deep into neighboring communities, creating a much bigger health crisis.
This program aired on September 4, 2009.
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