Kids are going back to college this week, and swine flu is, too. The University of Kansas has already reported cases on campus, as have other schools. Parents can be forgiven for thinking, "Yikes!" But schools have been busy getting prepared over the summer, presuming that the new H1N1 flu virus will be a serious factor in the fall. The federal government has been busy, too, with new advice for parents and students on what they should do to survive swine flu on campus. It's a "don't panic" approach that aims to keep campus life as normal as possible until more drastic measures are needed.
I don't have college-age children, but I teach at Johns Hopkins University, and the school has already told us to be prepared for teaching online if the pandemic gets worse this fall. I hope it won't come to that. Colleges will participate in giving the vaccine when it becomes available (and people under age 25 are a group the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider a priority to get the shot), but that won't be until October or November. For now, students can minimize their risk by:
- Washing hands often, and using hand sanitizers, too. Many colleges have installed sanitizer dispensers in dorms, and it would be a good idea to tuck a personal-sized bottle in the backpack. It's also smart to clean dorm-room doorknobs, computer keyboards, phones, and TV remotes with Lysol or other germ-killing sanitizers.
- If you get sick with a fever and cough and suspect flu, be sure to check in with the campus health center, since prompt use of antiviral medication can ease symptoms. And isolate yourself to avoid spreading the swine flu virus. If your home isn't far from campus, the best bet will be to return there, by car or other private transportation. (Who doesn't want to be home with Mom when they're sick?) If you can't leave campus, stay away from other people in your room or apartment until the fever has been gone for 24 hours. If you can't isolate yourself, try to wear a surgical mask so you're less likely to spread the swine flu virus.
- Consider recruiting a friend to be your "flu buddy." Agree that you'll take care of each other if you get sick and can't go home. That approach should help reduce the number of people exposed to the virus.
- Stay alert for recommendations if swine flu hits your campus hard. One strategy under consideration would be to have students observe a "6-foot rule," staying 6 feet away from other students to reduce virus spread. So much for hand-holding.
- Have you told your college-age children what to do about swine flu? Has their school given them clear instructions on how to protect themselves? It may well be buried in that snowstorm of orientation and registration documents. This year, part of being a smart student means studying up on swine flu. We parents need to, too.