Cover Story: Preparing for the worst

Photo illustration by Joe Castelli/Web editor-in-chief

Now that the possibility of a swine flu outbreak at Northern Kentucky University has become a reality, concerns have been raised as to if the campus will eventually shut down.

‘It would take a significant disruption of university services for NKU to have to close down.’ When the university can no longer ensure that our students are safe and we feel that we cannot provide an adequate educational experience.’ If our average class size is 20 students, and those classes get down to four students who are healthy at that point we will begin to have conversations about shutting down.’ But we are not going to shut down the university if two or three students in a class are ill, just like we wouldn’t if in a normal year three students had the flu in a class,’ said Chris Cole, director of Communication and Media Relations.

‘Right now we are focusing on educational campaign with faculty, staff and students to inform them about the symptoms of the flu, because the symptoms of H1N1 are essentially the symptoms of the flu.’ To basically inform them that if they have those symptoms or if they find out that someone else has those symptoms, the steps they can take to prevent the spread of H1N1,’ Cole stated.

‘Also who students can contact at NKU so that those who do have H1N1, get the help that they need and so the University can take the necessary steps to prevent the spread.’ By informing roommates or the student’s professor that the student won’t be in class, of course we never tell the professor why,’ Cole said.

For now it is an educational campaign, along with putting up Purel dispensers throughout campus and encouraging people to visit the Health, Counseling and Prevention Offices if they do have flu like symptoms.

‘I think the campus should have been concerned about germs and flu etc. a long time ago.’ It is good that we are on alert for the safety of students, faculty and staff, but these efforts could have been made before the H1N1 outbreak. Everyone seems to be paranoid,’ stated Laila Hameen, Counseling and Social Work Graduate Assistant.

‘Shutting down NKU is something we have talked about if this illness gets to the point where it’s disrupting our ability to protect our students and to offer education in a safe and convenient environment.’ But it’s not something, I think, that will happen real soon it would have to get pretty drastic.’ We are prepared to do that if necessary.’ Although at this point we only have four confirmed cases,’ Cole said.

‘The university has plans that cover any contingency.’ We have spent considerable time focused on both prevention protocols and scenarios involving large numbers of confirmed cases among faculty, staff, and students.’ Our priority will be to communicate quickly and fully, protect the health of all who are part of our campus, and keep the campus open as long as we don’t compromise safety,’ NKU President Dr. James Votruba said.

‘A lot of people ask me at what number of students will the university close, and its really not like that what people don’t realize is, if we get to a point where we have 100 confirmed cases, that doesn’t mean that at that moment we have 100 people who have H1N1,’ Cole said.’ ‘That means during the fall we’ve had 100 people who’ve had H1N1, but a lot of them will have gotten better.

‘The first confirmed case that we had will no longer be contagious and will be fine.’ When we get to that hypothetical 100th case we won’t have a total of 100 people who have H1N1, we will have had 100 people who have had H1N1.’

You can’t put a number on or say once we get to this number we’ll shut down or we’ll do this or that.’

‘What NKU is looking at is once NKU gets to a point where, a lot of classes are experiencing disruptions because a lot of students aren’t there or a lot of faculty aren’t there, that’s when we start making these decisions but its not based on an arbitrary number.’ For instance if we hit 250 cases we’re going to shut down because that also means that if you get to 250 cases 200 of them maybe healthy at that point and you only have 50 cases.’ So it is really a difficult thing to say,’ Cole said.

Another important part to consider is there are probably more than four confirmed cases at NKU right now, ‘we only know about a case if a student reports it to his or her professor.’ Then the professor is encouraged to report the case to the Dean of Students office, so we can verify the case,’ states Cole said.

Once the university verifies a case they can add it to their count, but there are probably students who haven’t reported potential cases, perhaps the students with non-reported cases have gone home and isolated themselves, as they’re supposed too, but just didn’t report it to NKU.

Which is why NKU can’t have an exact count of who has H1N1 because their data is based on self-reporting.’ That’s another reason the confirmed number of cases won’t really drive decisions that NKU makes, it’ll more be based on what’s going on in the classrooms, what’s really happening on campus.’

‘It is very important that students be responsible in both prevention and, if necessary, treatment.’ At this point, the University has very few confirmed cases.’ When confirmation occurs, the university has a protocol that isolates the student until the risk of transmittal has passed,” Dr. Votruba stated.

‘The H1N1 virus does concern me a bit but, for me, it is a concern I have everywhere I go. I do, however, try to practice good hygiene, by washing my hands (for at least 20 sec! – not just rinsing) after being in public locations such as campus, restaurants, etc. before I leave there,” Elaine Arnett, Senior Pre-Education Major said.

‘I also keep hand sanitizer in my vehicle for when I do not have water to wash (i.e. at gas station pump or drive-thru restaurant).’ I have an ill father who has been in the hospital for a while and got MERSA while there and I realize how one small mistake of not practicing good hygiene, etc. can affect another person,” Arnett said.

If H1N1 were to progress through stages, some of the plans NKU is considering include separating students in classrooms by an empty desk, at the other end of the spectrum having classes outside, increasing distance learning, shutting down classes and then the University.’ ‘ These are all sort of steps along a continuum, they’re all things the university has discussed.

The period a student would be out isn’t precise, but it is about the same as the regular seasonal flu.’ ‘ NKU does suggest if possible students who are ill leave University Housing, but obviously there are some students who cannot.’ Those who are ill and cannot return home, NKU does suggest that they self-isolate, which means staying in their room, trying to not go to the cafeteria or venture around campus.

NKU hasn’t changed their’ absentee policy for H1N1 cases.’ If a student were to contract H1N1, the policy is the same as if it were any other illness. Because it is essentially just another illness, it will affect the vast majority of people the same way that the regular seasonal flu would. A lot of the time this policy is handled at the professorial level.’ Now a professor could extend a deadline and certainly work with a student that’s ill, but the university doesn’t have the policy to forgive or wipe away assignments that were due.
Professors have been planning in the event that NKU closes.

Gail W. Wells, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, sent the following email to faculty, on August 28. This email expresses the need of an additional syllabus per course in the event NKU were to have to close.

Because of the H1N1 threat for the coming fall semester, we must be prepared for a possible disruption in our courses due to high absenteeism or the illness of the instructor.’ Each instructor should think c
reatively of ways to complete the semester in the face of potentially adverse circumstances.’ Although an H1N1 outbreak would alter the learning experience in any case, an instructor’s contingency plan (ICP) would mitigate the negative impact considerably.

Alternative plans and syllabi need not be communicated to the students unless their implementation is triggered by an outbreak of H1N1.’ It is highly recommended that all instructional contingency plans (ICP) be submitted to the department chairperson for confirmation and documentation of Northern Kentucky University’s instructional readiness for an H1N1 outbreak.

‘ Items to consider in the ICP:
Use of distance learning technology such as Blackboard.’ Describe how you will provide guidance to your students, if needed, regarding the distance learning technology you would be employing.’ (You might also suggest options for students who do not have home access to a computer.)

A change in the sequence of topics, deadlines for assignments, and other course components (particularly those areas which would be difficult, or impossible, to address via distance learning technology — for example, applied lessons in music, science or nursing lab courses, student-teaching, etc.)’ ‘ ‘ Instructors are encouraged to be creative in designing alternative learning strategies if an emergency should occur.

Instructional matters (e.g., how you will provide information and resources to students, communicate/conference with students, collect student work) and assessment-related matters (e.g., how you will administer exams where in-class exams had been planned, or how you will modify grading in light of changed requirements).
Revision of the attendance policy for the course.

So what happens to a student who thinks they have H1N1?’ There are basically two levels of testing, the first test a student would take would determine if they have Type A or Type B influenza.

Many students heard the University talk about probable cases, well if a student tests positive for Type A influenza, then they are a probable case.’ Doesn’t mean the student has H1N1, it means you’re more likely to test positive for H1N1 if you test positive for type

A.’ ‘ ‘ If a student does test positive for type A then the University refers them to their primary health care physician and encourages them to get tested for H1N1.’ ‘ And then if they test positive for H1N1, they become a confirmed case.

The most important steps for students to take are focused on prevention. Washing hands, getting lots of rest, and avoiding those who may have flu symptoms are just some of the steps.’ I don’t believe that students should be overly concerned at this point.’ They should stay in touch with H1N1 information on our web page, take recommended precautions, and seek medical advice and treatment should symptoms occur,’ Dr. Votruba stated.

Either way the student is to stay out of the classroom.’ Also if at all possible the university is encouraging them to go or remain at home, so they are not surrounded by the 15,000 students at NKU.

‘That’s how it has been with all of the confirmed cases here, they are all off campus, working on getting better at home.’ Then once their symptoms have cleared up and twenty four hours after their fever has broken, they check back in with their primary health care physician, to make sure they are no longer contagious,’ Cole said.

‘I believe the threat of H1N1 should be taken seriously.’ However, at this point ‘- don’t believe that the threat should distract students from full participation in university life.’ If conditions change, the university will advise accordingly.’ My hope is that students will stay focused on their studies, take all prudent precautions, and consult the university web page for regular updates,” Dr. Votruba stated.