University prepares for H1N1 outbreak

Some St. Thomas students seem unconcerned about a possible on-campus outbreak of the H1N1 virus, despite a blitz of media attention and university efforts to educate them about the topic.

Sophomore Aaron Behnke said he isn’t going to make any drastic changes in his life to avoid infection.

“As it is right now there aren’t a lot of publicized cases around here so I don’t think about it much,” Behnke said. “Last year was different because the outbreak hit right away. I think it was more in our minds because it was all over the place.”

Other students are coming to campus with little to no concern for what could develop into a major public health issue. Some are even joking about it.

“I hope I get it so I don’t have to go to school,” sophomore Nick Burgmeier said. “I’m going to let my immune system take care of itself.”

Perhaps students are taking the issue lightly because relatively few local cases have been reported in the five months since the earliest onset date of H1N1 in the United States. In June, the World Health Organization declared H1N1 the first global influenza pandemic in 41 years and St. Thomas has spent months preparing policy on the topic.

Madonna McDermott, director of Student Health Services, said officials have developed what she calls “a community-wide effort” to inform the St. Thomas community about the virus and its potential to spread rapidly.

“It presents a potentially large concern in that we don’t know how widespread it’s going to be on our campus this year, and we don’t know if it’s going to change in its behavior,” McDermott said. “Students should be more concerned than your typical year. This is not typical of a seasonal influenza type pattern.”

Vice President of Student Affairs Jane Canney said everybody should be concerned about a potential outbreak. The university’s pandemic planning process is taking all necessary steps to ensure the health of students, she said.

“This is a pandemic,” Canney said. “We will continue to conduct the operations of the institution as we have. But we’re taking all of these precautionary steps.”

Those steps include the following:

– On Sept. 1, letters were sent to students, parents and faculty. The letters provided information about the dangers of the virus, outlined preventative measures and discussed the university’s plan.

– This semester, every course syllabus contains a statement with the appropriate steps for students to take if they think they might have the virus.

– The university’s emergency notification system will update students of any on-campus health issues as they occur. Students can register their cell phone numbers in the emergency notification system through Murphy Online.

The university’s general policy on any infected members of the community is to “report and self-isolate,” according to McDermott.

McDermott and Canney said that university officials are asking students who think they are experiencing symptoms of H1N1 to complete a form on the university’s pandemic planning Web site. The form is automatically sent to the student’s professors, Student Health Services and Academic Counseling.

The form excuses students from classes without a doctor’s note. However, students will still be responsible for all material presented in classes that are missed.

One benefit of the system is alerting Student Health Services of any trends or pockets of outbreak to be concerned about, McDermott said.

But students aren’t the only ones excused from classes should they become infected with the virus. All faculty members have been asked to develop a plan for their classes if they become sick so that courses can progress as the faculty member recovers.

“Our greatest concern is for the health of our students, faculty and staff. If you’re sick, stay home,” Canney said. “We’re doing this in the best interest of students with the mindset that students won’t take advantage of it but will use good judgment.”

Student Health Services will offer a seasonal flu immunization clinic starting Sept. 21, McDermott said. When H1N1 immunizations become available (projected for late October), they will also be offered. The H1N1 vaccine will come in two doses.

For more information about the university’s H1N1 policy and procedure, visit the university’s pandemic planning Web site at

Brent Fischer can be reached at