While the influenza virus has spread nationwide and reached epidemic proportions in some areas, university health officials say they have laid the groundwork to handle the worst flu season since 2009.
More than 47 states have reported widespread flu activity as of Friday, and the country has reached an epidemic status with 20 related deaths under the age of 18, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention website. The flu is typically a wintertime disease, and different hemispheres experience the sickness at different times, said Paul Bennett, Chief of Staff at SIU Health Services.
“Typically it comes in from the coast, and then the middle of the country where we live is hit last.” he said. “We have to assume that the experience is in other parts of the country might trickle down to us as well. It doesn’t always happen that way, but it certainly can and we’re preparing for the worst.”
Bennett said the Health Center staff is prepared for patient care with a questionnaire to help them determine whether their symptoms are flu-like and require a doctor’s office visit. Other preparations include a streamlined nurse message system and ensuring people know the sickness’ warning signs, he said.
The CDC labels symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat and nasal congestion as common. Others such as chest pains, dizziness, breathing difficulty or abdominal pressure are symptoms Bennett said can justify an emergency room visit rather than over-the-counter medication.
“(Students) may not even be sick yet,” he said. “They may have come in contact with someone and not show any symptoms, but with a minor cough or a sneeze you can transfer the virus to someone else. Within a day or two, they will become symptomatic but may be contagious a day or so before that.”
Students are expected to miss class as the virus spreads, said Kathleen Jones, medical education preparatory instructor whose stomach flu caused her to miss work earlier this week.
“It’s a sort of push and pull because you don’t want someone contagious coming to class, but at the same time you don’t want them getting off schedule or behind in lecture,” she said. “Tools like (Desire2Learn) can help a lot, but face-to-face interaction in a classroom is something you can’t duplicate.”
This year’s flu vaccine has been 62 percent effective against the virus, according to the CDC website. The vaccine has three components — two type-A flu strains and one type-B — and it is grown in an egg-based medium. Patients with an egg allergy should consult their doctors to weigh the vaccine’s risks and benefits.
Bennett said the vaccine’s effectiveness is based on a patient’s response to it and whether its producers predicted the correct strain. However, he said the vaccine may not guarantee complete protection.
“The experts try to predict what they think will be the likely prevalent strains during cold and flu season that year,” he said. “Most years they get it right, some years they don’t. This year, they appear to have nailed it.”
Each year, every vaccine administrator orders shots based on its previous year’s numbers, said Jodi Robertson, director of nurses for Student Health Services. Robertson said this is the first time in her five-year tenure the department needed to order more vaccines.
The shot costs $20, and the Health Center charges a $6 door fee for students. Jones said university faculty receive the shot at no cost, but she thinks more students would get vaccinated if it were free for them as well.
“We don’t want to make any money off this,” Bennett said. “Our job is to keep you guys healthy enough to go to class and be successful academically.”
Sydney Haberberger, a freshman from Chester studying psychology, said she didn’t receive the vaccine because she doesn’t get sick often. She said she hasn’t experienced the flu since she was in grade school.
Bennett said people who haven’t received the shot but remain healthy are lucky.
“If they continue to be lucky, then more power to them,” he said. “It’s sort of like ‘I’ve never been in an automobile accident, so I’m not going to wear my seatbelt.’ Most people don’t have a reason not to.”
Thomas McCorkle, a graduate in business administration from Carterville, said his primary caregiver gave him the vaccine’s nasal spray version.
“I would rather not be sick because I just don’t have time,” he said. “I tend to be good about keeping my hands clean and doing everything you can to avoid the flu.”