In the waiting room at Boston University Student Health Services, half the kids are wearing the blue surgical masks they are giving out at the door. It’s a two-hour wait for walk-ins, and everyone is coughing.
"Our total number of visits are actually about the same as they were last year, but there are some confounding factors to that measurement," said Dr. David McBride, the director of the BU health center. "One is we’re not specifically measuring the visits that we’re doing on the phone, and those are really much higher than they have been in years past."
It’s a similar story at student health centers all over the city. Revamped hot lines have been designed to provide a lot of care in lieu of face-to-face visits. Why?
“My worry is that the students who come in with typical cold symptoms are sitting in a waiting room with people who really have influenza," Dr. McBride said.
But this is hardly the only place where germs can be exchanged on a densely packed college campus. When one kid gets fluish, how do you keep their whole residence hall from going down?
“We work cooperatively with our residence life and housing staff to identify the means to isolate a student," Dr. McBride said.
Isolation can be voluntary, like it is at Boston University, MIT or Brandeis. But at some places, like Wellesley and Boston College, they're actually mandating it. Feeling fluish? Move to a special room — or go home.
Shevaun Betzler, a freshman at Emerson, woke up one morning in October feeling feverish. She went to the school's health and wellness center, where she was told she had a 102-degree fever and would need to be in medical isolation.
Betzler said a student worker marched her straight from the health center to collect her things before dropping her off in an isolation room on an upper floor.
"I mean, it kinda sucked," Betzler recalled. "They didn’t have anything already, like, prepared for me, like I feel like they should have stuff for students who are sick and everything, but it was just like a completely empty dorm room and it was cold and dirty and it was gross."
Shevaun said nobody from the health center followed up with her. Her roommate brought her food. By the end of that first day, she was feeling better and wanted to go back to her regular room. Her friends started scrawling "Free Shevaun" in the halls.
The whole experience made Shevaun regret having gone to the health center in the first place
"Most students now are like, 'Yeah, I'm not going, like I'd rather just stay in my dorm room and sleep it off,' " Shevaun said. "That's what I should have done."
For the record, Emerson officials say isolation is not compulsory, just highly recommended.
The "Free Shevaun" incident isn’t the only minor controversy to have erupted on a college campus over quarantine procedures this year. Back at BU, some students staged a revolt on Facebook after officials moved a fluish student onto their floor — a floor with only one communal bathroom.
Dr. McBride of the BU health center said the risk to the healthy students was minimal.
"We did meet with those students and I think tried to explain the rationale behind what we’re doing," Dr. McBride said. So what did they want? I asked Dr. McBride. For him to put the kid in a leper colony?
"Yeah," Dr. McBride said, laughing. "I don’t know what it is exactly that they want. I think that our logical selves need to rule and realize the risk of physically being on campus or walking down the street or taking the T is in many ways even greater than that risk that would be conferred by living in a hallway with someone."
That said, as I exit Dr. McBride’s office, there are even more mask-covered faces in the waiting room, and I overhear a staff member tell a student there are no appointments available until the day after tomorrow.
This program aired on November 13, 2009.