Washington State University is in the midst of a swine flu outbreak since classes started last month, with 2,500 people contacting student health to report flu-like symptoms and officials handing out flu kits around campus.
The number of cases of suspected swine flu dropped dramatically as students left campus over the Labor Day weekend, but school officials were closely watching the numbers Tuesday to see if this would rise as students returned.
Attendance at a Sept. 5 football game against Stanford was down, likely because of publicity about the flu, and the school took precautions that included placing hand sanitizer at concession stands. Coach Paul Wulff said 16 players have come down with cases of flu at different times, and top receiver Daniel Blackledge missed practice Tuesday because of the flu.
Officials have distributed about 200 free flu kits, including a thermometer, painkillers, throat lozenges, sport drinks, hand sanitizer and tissues. Some students wore surgical masks around campus, but most were taking it in stride.
"The students are taking it like any other type of flu," said 21-year-old Molly Aigner, whose boyfriend came down with the flu. "It’s not like we’re growing tails or anything."
There have been no deaths or even hospitalizations from the cases at WSU, a school with an enrollment of about 18,000 in Pullman. About a dozen patients with nausea and vomiting have required hydration, the school said.
Officials at Washington State, and at other colleges around the nation, have been anticipating large numbers of flu cases this fall because swine flu targets young people and thrives in the tight living quarters common on college campuses, said Paula Adams, community coordinator for WSU Health and Wellness Services.
Washington State started classes on Aug. 24, much earlier than most schools, and thus its outbreak has been getting more attention, Adams said. Other colleges across the country are seeing spikes in the number of suspected cases of swine flu as dorms fill up and classes begin.
Federal health officials say they have been girding for a spike in cases as schools and colleges came back into session in August and September. "Some colleges have already seen upticks but the majority of colleges haven’t," Dr. Anne Schuchat of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said at a briefing Sept. 8.
Based on federal guidelines, WSU is assuming everyone who calls with flu-like symptoms has swine flu, as there would be only a handful of normal flu cases this time of year, Adams said. "To see hundreds if not thousands of people is unusual," she said.
Anyone who calls Health and Wellness to report flu-like symptoms is counted as a swine flu case. People who call are advised to stay home, treat symptoms and drink fluids.
Dr. Dennis Garcia, senior associate director of Health and Wellness Services, said federal estimates would indicate that some 5,000 WSU students might eventually come down with the bug.
The number of flu contacts dropped sharply over Labor Day weekend, as thousands of students headed home for the holiday. A total of 64 people contacted WSU Health and Wellness Services those three days, compared with 146 who contacted the office on Friday alone.
The state expects additional outbreaks at colleges, workplaces and other gathering places this fall, said Tim Church of the state Department of Health. The state’s largest college, the University of Washington, does not begin classes until the end of the month.
The school district in Pullman is already seeing a higher rate of absenteeism, suggesting it is spreading to the larger population, said Fran Martin, director of Whitman County Public Health.
Compared with other types of influenza, the swine flu, or H1N1 strain, is relatively mild, Garcia said. He said most students suffer three to five days of discomfort, such as fever, congestion, sore throat and fatigue.