A week into Middlebury’s first semester, Doctor Mark Peluso, the director of the Parton Health Center at the College, appeared as a guest on Vermont Public Radio’s noon-hour news program Vermont Edition.
The topic was swine flu, and at the outset of the interview, Vermont Edition host Jane Lindholm asked Peluso how Middlebury had been planning for a possible pandemic.
“We’ve been planning for a pandemic event for several years,” said Peluso. “We started by planning for a lethal pandemic event, something much more severe and something we’re not facing right now. And over the past year, we’ve been working on a nonlethal pandemic event. We’ve been working with the Department of Health and following the CDC guidelines to adapt our unique situation—with respect to housing our students—to those guidelines.”
Since it broke onto the global scene last spring, swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, receded from the front pages of North American newspapers and the lead spot of nightly newscasts this summer, but the story never really went away. Reports from the Southern Hemisphere, where it was winter and thus the traditional flu season, showed that H1N1 could, indeed, reach pandemic status. And with early reports of H1N1 outbreaks on campuses that opened their doors in August (more than 2,000 reported cases at Washington State University, 500+ at Cornell), H1N1 has become the hot topic this fall—on college campuses and beyond.
So, how has Middlebury planned for potential infections on campus?
As long as the virus remains a relatively nonlethal event, the College has instituted a self-isolation policy. If a student presents symptoms of an influenza-like illness, he is asked to contact both the Health Center and his Commons office. (Students can also contact the Health Center if they are very ill or have questions about how best to care for themselves.) In most cases, healthy roommates will be moved to separate living quarters, while the sick student is isolated in his dorm room, usually for about three to five days. The Health Center believes that social isolation will help limit the illness’s spread and reduce the number of infected people in the community. Limiting the spread of the virus takes on critical importance when thinking about protecting those who are considered at risk for complications of H1N1 infection.
Who is considered at risk for complications of H1N1 infection?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define at-risk, college-age students as being those who have chronic pulmonary, cardiovascular, hepatic, hematological, neurologic, neuromuscular, or metabolic disorders; students who have immunosuppression; pregnant women; and students younger than 18 who are receiving long-term aspirin therapy.
Will students be able to get vaccinated?
It’s expected that the vaccine will be available in late October, early November. Students designated as being in a high-risk group will be given priority.
What happens if the virus mutates and/or turns lethal?
In the event of widespread fatalities across the country as a consequence of H1N1 infection, the College would shut down. All students have been required to have an evacuation plan, detailing where they will go and how they will get there, if Middlebury closes, and the College has plans to use its vehicle pool and area transit outlets to transport students, if needed. Peluso said that the campus could be shutdown in 48 hours, but stressed that such a scenario is unlikely based on how the virus has behaved thus far.
At the conclusion of the VPR interview, Peluso was asked if thoughts of H1N1 were keeping him up at night. His response was reassuring: “Not at all. It used to. But not anymore. We have well-thought-out plans in place for the disaster that we don’t think will happen, but we’re ready for if it does. That would be the more lethal pandemic event. And we have a good plan in place for the nonlethal event. Being prepared is a nice place to be in.”