Year in Review: H1N1 Pandemic Set to Hit Campuses

Colleges and universities face unique challenges in fighting the swine flu.

by / December 10, 2009
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We began planning, early this year, a feature story on what would happen if a pandemic were to hit a college campus. By early spring, it looked like a possibility. By September, it looked inevitable.

When the first case of the H1N1 flu virus was discovered in Southern California in April, health officials thought it was unusual, but something they could hacndle. When a second case turned up in a different location in the state, officials were alarmed. "The second case was highly unusual," said Dr. Gilberto Chavez, state epidemiologist and chief of California's Center for Infectious Diseases.

It was known then as the swine flu, but it was soon found to be a combination of swine, avian and human virus -- thus the official term, H1N1. In many ways, the threat posed by the virus dominated emergency planning and business continuity discussions throughout the year.

In May, Emergency Management, a sister publication of Government Technology, looked at the unique challenges facing colleges and universities as thei potental for pandemic rushed toward reality.

Questions were raised about whether dormitories and even entire schools should be closed, or if infected students should be quarantined. For some, the inevitability of a pandemic and the chaos that follows was coming to fruition.

"I have been in this business for almost 20 years, and I remember 15 years ago sitting in meetings and trying to talk to people about the danger of having a pandemic, and people couldn't grasp it -- they just couldn't see it," said Valerie Lucus, emergency and business continuity manager of the University of California (UC) at Davis. "I think the H5N1 [avian flu] scare we all had about three years ago brought it more into the consciousness. People recognize it as a hazard that they really need to think about and address for themselves."

Turning to Technology

Technology tools quickly emerged to help cope with the threat. For instance, UC Ready, a Web-based business continuity tool developed by UC at Berkeley, lets schools in the UC system keep pandemic plans current. "Since it's online, you only have to go in and do it once," Lucus told Emergency Management magazine. "Then it's easy to keep up-to-date and it collects information in a more consistent way. We can pull the information out and it's sorted."

In addition, researchers at Georgia Tech's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) created a model that simulates the spread of a pandemic geographically and across time. "This is a large-scale simulation model," said Pinar Keskinocak, a developer and ISyE associate professor. "We essentially simulate each person in a population according to age groups and social groups -- such as households, school groups, work groups and community interaction. Taking all of these factors into account, the simulation model mimics the way the disease will spread both geographically and over time."

The developers feed information from the U.S. Census Bureau into the model, which has two forms: simulation and optimization. The simulation model gives a visual view of the disease and the optimization model is used to help decision-making. The optimization model, for example, could be used by the Red Cross to calculate food distribution planning by showing the best places to open facilities, such as food banks, and how to allocate resources over time.

Suspend Classes or Close Campus?

Officials on college campuses also grappled with whether to close campuses or quarantine students. They found that voluntary quarantining significantly reduced the spread of the virus and might be a better option than school closures. "

One of our main recommendations to public officials would be to seriously consider the potential social impact of closing schools versus educating the public and convincing them to stay home while they are sick," Keskinocak said.

Indeed, officials found it probably wasn't feasible to close campuses because the virus would likely persist over several months. Lucus said closing a campus is difficult because they are like small cities. Suspending classes is a better option, she said. "We would still be operating, but we would be operating with only the people who need to be here to keep the facility running."

For students residing in dormitories, Lucus said the university would help them get home by providing transportation to the airport and other means. She said there would be ample warning and that a week's worth of food is stored and available at the university.

Lucus penned an Emergency Management article later in the year updating the H1N1 scenario and the unpredictability of the virus. It may linger and spread slowly for months or longer and then explode, she noted, adding that the Spanish flu of 1918 was relatively mild for about a year before it exploded and created death and mayhem.

"Picture an egg put in cold water over low heat so the water never actually boils," Lucus wrote. "How long does it take to get a hard-boiled egg? And where is the tipping point -- where the momentum becomes unstoppable and the egg is going to be hard-boiled whether we want it to be or not?"

Toward the end of the year, Chavez was predicting that California inevitably would face a mutating virus that was likely to hit hard. Evidence of that was already present at college campuses, where thousands of students were infected. It looked, in September, that the tipping point Lucus wrote about was closer than ever before.


Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor