On Campus

Schools fine-tune emergency plans in case of H1N1 outbreak

"The worst of part of any of these health crises is not the disease itself," says doctor

As students stock up on school supplies and get ready to hit the books this fall, post-secondary institutions are making preparations of their own, fine-tuning their action plans in the event that swine flu cases surface on campus.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says that under the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan, all large institutions – including colleges and universities – are encouraged to have pandemic preparedness plans.

But when it comes to emergency planning, universities are hardly starting from scratch. In fact, many are tailoring existing strategies to address a potential flu outbreak and the possible ripple effects that could have an impact on school life.

Both Montreal’s McGill University and Simon Fraser University in British Columbia had much of their planning done to address another strain of flu – H5N1, or avian flu.

Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of student health services at McGill, said the university has been much more active since the H1N1 epidemic was observed in Mexico this past spring and later declared a pandemic.

Tellier said there are weekly planning meetings involving individuals representing various groups including human resources, student representatives and communications staff.

They are preparing documents to go out to students arriving in residence telling them what to do if there is an issue surrounding H1N1, how to take care of themselves and where to seek care. In addition, a website is being developed to provide information to students, parents and staff.

“The worst part of any of these health crises is not the disease itself,” said Tellier. “It’s really dealing with the population around who become very anxious and very stressed and that you have to … constantly clear up issues and matters on an ongoing basis, and that’s where a lot of your energy is spent.”

“If you’re able to prepare a lot of this ahead of time prior to an episode occurring… then it makes it easier.”

Part of the contingency planning also addresses what to do if faculty or staff are out of commission. Every unit is being asked to identify essential services and key individuals and to ensure they have trained backups for their positions, Tellier said. Professors are also being encouraged to record lectures or organize material for students to access if they can’t attend class, he said.

Apollonia Cifarelli, director of environmental health and safety at Simon Fraser University, said educating people on infection control has been their primary focus.

In addition to spreading the word about sneezing etiquette and proper hygiene techniques, they are encouraging faculty to do the same by providing information to students and making them aware of health services on campus.

Students in residence are being provided with personal containers of gel or sanitizer to further drive home the message about hygiene. Dorm leaders or community advisers would act as the eyes and ears of the floor and as a link to administration, providing updates if necessary if students get sick.

An area has been identified where those living on campus would be relocated if they fall ill. Cifarelli said it isn’t a quarantine, but rather an area where they can keep an eye on students and provide essential support.

“People are infectious two days before they show symptoms, so quarantining people is really not going to do a heck of a lot,” she said from Burnaby, B.C.

Medical care would fall to health services, but if symptoms are more severe, it might be recommended that students be transferred to a hospital, she said.

The university also has a mass communication system in place to send out messages by phone, email or text if necessary, although it is only put in use in the face of an imminent emergency, Cifarelli said.

“We are reminding people this is really, in essence, this is the flu – it’s the seasonal flu,” she added. “The main difference is that we have no vaccine for this flu at this point in time, and we do know that because younger people have not had a lot of time to develop immunities to viruses they might be more vulnerable.”

Gloria Jollymore, vice-president of university advancement at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., said the school has protocols in place to respond not just to an H1N1 outbreak but to any sort of crisis that may hit campus.

Two years ago, those protocols were put to the test during an outbreak of Norwalk virus. Classes were cancelled, as were sporting and social activities, but Jollymore said the virus was contained and the school was up and running again quickly.

Jollymore said the university wouldn’t rule out similar measures in the future but would take any of those decisions in consultation with local public health authorities.

In the meantime, Mount Allison is using posters, the web, email and word-of-mouth communication to help keep students in the loop about proper health protocols and hygiene. But Jollymore said they want to ensure they are keeping individuals informed without causing any undue concern.

“We work hard on finding the right balance of making sure that our students and faculty and staff are aware of what they need to do and are reminded of what they need to do so they do it consistently, but you don’t want to create a state of panic, either.”

– The Canadian Press