Pitt braces for potential H1N1 virus spread

By Liz Navratil

Suspected cases of the swine flu are surfacing at schools like Penn State and neighboring… Suspected cases of the swine flu are surfacing at schools like Penn State and neighboring Carnegie Mellon, but local health officials say Pitt students shouldn’t fret yet.

But that doesn’t mean Pitt isn’t preparing for the worst.

There are 26 potential cases at Carnegie Mellon alone, but Guillermo Cole, a spokesman for the Allegheny County Health Department, said, “Right now, it doesn’t appear that the H1N1 [more commonly known as swine flu] will be more severe than a regular flu.”

Cole said the symptoms for the swine flu are virtually the same as those for the regular seasonal flu. They include a fever, sore throat, cough, headache, muscle aches, runny nose, fatigue, weakness and, in some severe cases, intestinal illness.

So what separates swine flu from the seasonal flu?

“Expect to see people getting it disproportionately,” Cole said.

He said people 65 and older tend not to be as susceptible to the swine flu as people younger than age 30 or 40. Somewhere between 30 and 50 years ago, he said, senior citizens were exposed to a strain of the flu that was similar to H1N1 and therefore have some resistance to it.

Younger people, he added, “don’t have any protection … You’ve never been exposed to any virus like this because there hasn’t been any virus like this.”

Jay Frerotte, Pitt’s director of environmental health and safety, said students should self-isolate if they begin to have flu-like symptoms. This means skipping class and social events to stay either in their dorm rooms or apartments or heading home, if possible. Students with flu-like symptoms can leave to get necessities, Frerotte said.

He suggested that students call their doctors before going in for an appointment. Their doctors will tell them what steps they can take to avoid passing a potential case of the swine flu on to other people, he said.

Both Frerotte and Cole said that not everyone who exhibits flu-like symptoms will be tested for swine flu. They said officials tend to test for swine flu to see if it has arrived in an area. After health professionals know that the swine flu has entered Allegheny County, for example, they likely will not test every person with flu-like symptoms. They’ll simply go ahead and treat them.

Combine that with the fact that not everyone who has flu-like symptoms will see a doctor, and it’s possible that authorities will never know exactly how many swine flu cases will appear in the United States.

Still, Frerotte said, “I don’t think anyone should be panicking. It’s all common sense of how to protect yourself.”

He suggested students wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their mouths and noses. Cole said people should refrain from coughing or sneezing in public and should be sure to cover their mouths and noses if they must do so.

Both Cole and Frerotte said they expect a swine flu vaccine to be available by mid-October. Because college students are among those most vulnerable to the H1N1 virus, they will be some of the first people to get the shots. Young children, pregnant women and people with conditions that put them at high risk, such as asthma, will also be among the first to receive the vaccine.

Preparing for the worst

The University has been working since May to develop ways to cope with the swine flu pandemic, should it get worse, Frerotte said.

He said Pitt staff members representing the provost’s and dean’s offices, Student Health Services and the Department of Environmental Health and Safety, among other groups, have been meeting routinely to develop a broad set of criteria that will determine how the University would react to a large-scale outbreak.

“There’s not a single … magic factor that says if we get to Point X, we will suspend classes,” he said. “There are a number of considerations to be taken into account.”

Frerotte said University administrators will evaluate the severity of swine flu symptoms, number of cases, people’s reactions and suggestions from local, state and national health organizations.

He said he thought the task force would also make a recommendation to University administrators.

Carnegie Mellon copes

Teresa Thomas, a spokeswoman for Carnegie Mellon, said in an e-mail that she wasn’t sure whether the 26 students with flu-like symptoms had the swine flu or the seasonal flu.

The students had mild to moderate symptoms, she said, and a few were expected to be discharged from health facilities late last week.

Carnegie Mellon sent an e-mail to its faculty and staff last week saying that students with flu-like symptoms were being isolated in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

The school asked students with flu-like symptoms to stay home and avoid contact with others. Staff members in the university’s student health services, housing, dining and student affairs offices were taking care of sick students living in the dorms.