College implements swine flu precautions

The swine flu, scientifically termed the H1N1 flu, has for the past week been spreading around the world and across the country. At the College, the administration has enforced preventive measures aimed at slowing transmission of the virus should it enter the community, including changes in policy regarding dining and custodial services.

Although there have been no reports of the flu on campus or in the immediate area, two students at Amherst College tested “probable” for infection with the virus, the highest level of verification prior to confirmation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Amherst has confirmed up to eight possible flu infections and has taken its own measures to deal with the virus on their campus. Amherst canceled all parties this past weekend along with many campus events and temporarily quarantined the infected students.

Although the College and its surrounding community have not yet seen any cases of the virus, administrators made the decision last week to take precautionary steps. A committee of College officials has been meeting every weekday at 8 a.m. to address the response to the international flu outbreak.

Dean Merrill explained that a committee to address situations like these has been in place at the College for some time. “For a couple of years, a group of Williams officials has met to help the College be better prepared to manage possible emergencies, including health ones,” Merrill said. “So, when the Centers for Disease Control declared a public health emergency regarding the H1N1 flu, that group met to begin monitoring the situation and calibrate the College’s responses.” The group was expanded to include Alumni Relations staff and a student, Peter Nurnberg ’09.

“The College occasionally has to think and act like a public health organization,” Merrill said. “Acting like a public health organization involves taking reasonable, calculated actions to prevent disease. I would stress ‘actions’ rather than ‘reactions’ since the latter is often too late in matters of health.”

In the vein of acting rather than reacting, the administration asked faculty members to consider how they might wrap up the semester if the College were to close prematurely. “This was a prudent thing to do, because in the early days of last week, we simply didn’t have enough information to judge how severe the virus was, and we wanted to be sure we were ready in case the situation worsened,” Merrill said. “We’re thankful, needless to say, that at least at this point it does not appear that we’d need to end the semester early.”

Dining Services

The earliest action taken by the College was the move away from self-serve dining, which was instituted last Thursday. The policy says that all food must be served by Dining Services personnel and is meant to minimize any student contact with shared food stations.
“One of the main ways that viruses spread on campus is through the shared use of food utensils in the dining halls,” Merrill said. “That’s why one of our first steps was to eliminate their use temporarily. The decisions were based on the latest information from the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and several professional organizations.”

The change in dining operations meant an increased labor load on each of the dining halls, providing more work for Dining Services staff and inconveniences for many students. “It’s more work, because we have to wrap everything, wash our hands and change our gloves 100 times a day,” said Cathy Dubarney, a member of Dining Services who works at Mission Dining Hall. “Overall, we’ll be happier when it goes back to normal.”

As a result of increased work load in dining halls, the ’82 Grill and Eco Café were closed for several days to allow for more servers in locations. “By closing the Eco Café and ’82 Grill we were able to relocate eight staff members into various positions throughout the dining halls,” said Bob Volpi, director of Dining Services.

Both of these locations reopened yesterday, reportedly because Dining Services determined a more efficient way of serving. Harrison said Monday in a campus-wide email, “Having had several days experience with this system, [Dining Services] has figured a way to [serve all portions in dining halls] without pulling all the staff from the Eco Café and ’82 Grill.”

Many students noticed apparent inconsistencies in precautions taking by Dining Services, noting that not all dining halls use the same protocol and that students are allowed to self serve certain products, such as cereal and drinks, while others, like pasta, are served by staff. Merrill responded to these complaints, saying, “Some students have asked why this elimination wasn’t more widespread. The answer is one of calibration. In a public health setting, you try to identify the steps that match the threat. I don’t think that our not doing more to eliminate the threat can be used as an argument for doing nothing.”

College Council Co-President Mike Tcheyan ’10 said, “While there is a certain disconnect on campus with the extent of precaution taken by the administration versus the fear of swine flu from the students, we recognize that it is difficult to predict the magnitude of the threat.”

According to Merrill, financial impact has been a concern, but not a reason for any changes. “Our decisions to remove self-service were driven wholly by public health concerns, but we also needed to be mindful of the impact that more labor-intensive procedures would have on staffing and the budget,” she said. She cited the shuffling of staff among dining halls as a strategy to assure only moderate increases in labor expense.

Additional Measures

According to Harrison, the Health Center has seen more student traffic since media coverage of the swine flu began. “We did have an increase in daily visits last week, with most of the increase being attributed to student concern regarding H1N1,” she said.

Facilities also shifted staff to implement flu prevention measures. Director of Facilities Bea Miles said that more focus is being put on “intensive bathroom and common area cleaning.” Dorms and public areas were also cleaned over the weekend.

Besides the precautions the College has taken, Harrison stressed that students can take measures to make themselves less susceptible to becoming infected. Above all, washing hands has been stressed by Health Services. Harrison also recommended the normal precautions taken when trying to prevent illness: getting sufficient sleep, avoiding stress, eating healthily, exercising and drinking fluids. Harrison’s all-campus e-mail directed students experiencing “flu-like symptoms” to contact the Health Center immediately.

Although the College did not cancel weekend parties and events as Amherst did, students were reminded to take precautions during weekend activities. Doug Schiazza, director of Campus Life, sent an all-campus e-mail to students with suggestions such as serving individually wrapped food portions, not sharing drinks and providing hand sanitizer.

Recent reports have indicated that the flu might not be as severe as originally thought, and the number of cases is reported to have leveled off. Merrill noted that the measures taken by the College are able to be decreased as the threat of the flu diminishes. “By design, the steps the College has taken are easily reversible,” she said. “It’s impossible to know ahead of time how dangerous a new flu strain will be since it can mutate quickly. As time has passed, the current spread of H1N1 has looked to be wide but not particularly dangerous. If that pattern continues, it’ll make sense for the College to roll back the steps it’s taken.”