Flu bugs UM
With at least 557 suspected cases of swine flu since classes began, students are growing warier
They’re slathering on hand sanitizer, wearing surgical masks to class, and at least one student erected a curtain in the middle of her dorm room hoping to create a hygienic barrier from her roommate.
As swine flu takes hold at the College Park campus of the University of Maryland, some of the most cautious students are even forgoing a sacred Thursday night ritual: $2 pitchers at the Thirsty Turtle on U.S. 1. To these germaphobes, no measure is too great to protect against the virus they’ve dubbed “the swine.”
“Last week, everything was so swine-y, my friends decided not to go,” said Lauren Kurtz, a freshman from Randolph, N.J., who said she’s constantly chiding her friends to wash their hands and cover their cough. “You know, people share, they take a sip.”
With at least 557 suspected cases of the H1N1 virus here since the start of classes Aug. 31 and cases mounting at college campuses nationwide — including a death at Cornell University blamed on the virus — some students have become vigilant. Worried they could fall ill and miss out on coursework, parties and the excitement of campus life, they are taking every precaution and challenging the stereotype of the young invincibles who think they will never get sick.
But for every undergrad with a jar of hand sanitizer in her backpack, there’s another who is completely unfazed. Jokes about “the swine” are everywhere as the phrase becomes campus lingo, as in “stop swhining” (translation — stop whining). And during last weekend’s
football match against James Madison University, a sign in the stands read: “Having swine is almost as bad as going to JMU.”
The reaction to the virus is overkill, these students say. They blame media hype, frantic administrators and impressionable freshmen for spreading fear.
“It’s just the flu,” said Matt Lee, a junior from Hoboken, N.J., who lives off campus. “I’ll wash my hands when I go to the bathroom. But I’m not going out of my way to do it.”
With some 36,000 students, the university’s College Park campus has the most suspected cases of the flu in the region. The Johns Hopkins University has roughly 30, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has 16, and Loyola College has about 60, according to officials’ estimates. Infectious disease experts expect the virus will continue to spread fast across campuses, with so many people living in tight quarters and students not being known for their impeccable hygiene. In addition, children and young adults are particularly at risk for this new flu.
The University of Maryland, College Park is expected to be a vaccination center in mid-October, federal health officials estimate. On Tuesday, the Food and Drug Administration approved four vaccines against the pandemic that has sickened more than a million people nationwide since outbreaks began in the spring. Preliminary trials of the vaccine showed a “robust immune response in most healthy adults eight to 10 days after a single dose,” according to an agency statement.
But tests on children are still under way and it’s not clear what will be the recommended dose for people 6 months to 17 years old, said Dr. Wilbur Chen, a flu researcher at the University of Maryland’s Center for Vaccine Development, one of a handful of academic centers conducting the trials.
Until a vaccine is ready, the university has stepped up its education campaign. Officials are telling students not to go to class if they are sick and to either go home to their families, if they live nearby, or stay in their dorms until they feel better.
Resident assistants hand out sanitizing wipes encouraging students to wipe off common surfaces. And hand-sanitizer pumps are mounted on walls in nearly every hallway across the university with colorful signs of the terrapin mascot that read “Nothing is slower than a sick turtle.”
“The students are really being vigilant with one another,” said Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs. “I see them sneezing into their elbows and using hand sanitizer, behaviors you would not have seen a year ago. I think our educational campaign has really worked.”
Mai Salam, a 17-year-old freshman from Gaithersburg, thinks her friends are taking precautions too far. Some are skipping class because they’re afraid they’ll be infected by a classmate. Others are eating solely in their dorms and avoiding public places like movie theaters. “That’s just weird,” she said.
She rolls her eyes at a stream of e-mails clogging her inbox from administrators, teachers and campus clubs warning people to practice healthy habits and to go home to their families or stay in their dorms until they get better.
“All they are telling us to do is ‘wash your hands,’ ‘cough in your sleeve.’ That’s the same stuff we were all taught in kindergarten,” said Salam, waiting for a friend, who did not have swine flu, outside the student health center. “It’s just a big scare. ... I think it’s just dumb.”
Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said the contagious nature of swine flu — combined with the player-to-player contact in the sport — has made him wary of the illness. The team is being especially vigilant about not sharing towels and other supplies.
“I’m concerned about it, I really am,” he said.
There have been no confirmed cases on the team. Friedgen said Tuesday that a few players have had various other illnesses and were kept away from teammates, such as star running back Da’Rel Scott, who was recently held out of practice for strep throat. Friedgen said the team has talked to the university about having team members vaccinated.
The University Health Center is now open on Sundays, and its staff is staying late to accommodate the flood of sneezing, coughing students.
“We’re really running like crazy,” said Dr. A. Gail Lee, the center’s clinical director.
She noticed a crush of students the week before Labor Day, and it’s been steady since. On Tuesday Max Jaffe, a 17-year-old freshman from Harrison, N.Y., said it would be 2½ hours before he could be seen by a doctor. He went to the health center for a sore throat, but decided not to wait.
Not all the students who show up with symptoms have the virus, said Lee. Some have headaches or coughs and are worried about swine flu. Nurses are stationed at the health center entrance to educate students about symptoms of the virus and how to better take care of themselves, Lee said.
Doctors aren’t testing students for the H1N1 virus specifically, but are doing rapid flu tests. A positive test is likely swine flu, thought to be the predominant strain now circulating. Those diagnosed with the flu are asked to wear surgical masks until they are feeling better.
Some students think the masks are a bad idea, stigmatizing those who are infected and making others afraid.
“You’re a liability if you have it,” said Tim Won, a 20-year-old junior from Bethesda. “No one wants to hang around you.”
Justin Fair, a 21-year-old senior from Woodlawn, said the masks are necessary and he thinks the university is doing a good job helping people stay healthy.
“The Purell is everywhere and I think people are really taking advantage of it,” he said. “A girl in my theater class had it, and I guess it’s possible we can have it too. I don’t know how fast it spreads so that scares me.”
On Tuesday, Marni Mitrsomwang, a 27year-old graduate student studying English, left the health center wearing a mask and holding a “flu kit” full of Tylenol and other drugs, another mask and a thermometer. Doctors told her she had the flu, but didn’t tell her which kind, she said.
“It’s not good,” she said. “But I’ll get better soon.” Despite routine hand-washing, she thinks she got the flu from her roommate or another friend who had it last week.
Jaffe says half-jokingly that it’s only a matter of time before he gets the virus, although he’s sure to use a hand-sanitizer pump any time he sees one. For now, he doesn’t share food or drinks with anyone and is careful of the women he dates.
“If she coughs, that’s it,” he said. “I don’t want to be swapping swine.”
Baltimore Sun reporters Childs Walker and Jeff Barker contributed to this article.