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Universities scramble to respond to rapid spread of flu

Along with frosh-week celebrations and keg parties, university students returning to school could be caught up in quarantines or locked out of classrooms.

With the swine flu virus disproportionately attacking young adults, universities have shifted into gear during these normally quiet summer months to revisit and revise emergency plans, with the aim of inoculating their schools against more severe outbreaks come fall.

The jury is out on how virulent H1N1 can be, but health authorities witnessed its rapid spread this month at three summer camps in Ontario's Muskoka region, where more than 200 children had symptoms of swine flu. The fear is that in university residences and classrooms, where students are in close quarters for long periods, it will move just as quickly.

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"There is a big unknown on the implication that it will have. The big concern is that, according to epidemiological data that we have up until now, the target population of the virus is the population that we have on campuses," said Pierre-Paul Tellier, the director of student health services at McGill University in Montreal. "Hence, we do have to prepare.

"Will we have answers before September? Probably not for everything. But certainly for a large number of things."

McGill's health clinic, where Dr. Tellier works part time, has been configured to isolate the very ill, and the university is considering adding more help lines so that those with less-severe symptoms of H1N1 don't have to enter the clinic.

Elsewhere on campus, there are discussions on how to keep classes running - perhaps electronically - if professors or students are infected.

But at what point will campuses be closed if a full-blown pandemic hits? Universities say much of their planning requires flexibility, and interrupting the school year so drastically would be a last resort.

In the meantime, they grapple with where to quarantine ill students, how to provide them with food and water, how to keep classes running and whether to limit travel.

The University of British Columbia is even studying the idea of restricting or cancelling public gatherings if the flu spreads. So much for football games.

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"It's a very realistic possibility," said David Zajdlik, director of health, safety and environment at UBC. "We're doing our best to maintain our programs and services. But we know that our primary interest and attention has to be on protecting the health of our vast university community."

At the University of Western Ontario in London, where 4,000 students live in campus residences, officials are looking at which buildings are best suited to quarantine the ill. The university has already stockpiled masks, gloves and hand sanitizers.

"We are prepared, and have options to deal with how we might proceed forward," said Jane O'Brien, associate vice-president of human resources.

Dalhousie University in Halifax has compiled lists of backup staff so the university can operate if up to a quarter of its faculty was out of commission with swine flu.

"One thing we've learned is we can't develop a planning process and put it in a drawer. So we are regularly updating and fine tuning as things change and evolve," said spokesman Charles Crosby. "If we were hit with some aspect of the pandemic today, we would be ready."

A special committee meets weekly, planning, strategizing and hoping for the best. The same is happening on other campuses.

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"This is not just a quieter time. We know that this is a bit of a latent stage for [H1N1]" said University of Toronto spokeswoman Laurie Stephens. "We know that the numbers are going to most likely spike in September. We just want to be prepared."

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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