Last year, the announcement that paper towels would be permanently removed from almost all dormitory bathrooms for both environmental and economic purposes created controversy on campus. Now, due to concerns over the spread of swine flu (H1N1), Physical Plant has halted the project.
According to Dr. Davis Smith, Medical Director of Health Services at the University, the lack of paper towels could discourage students from practicing good hygiene. Dr. Smith recommended that the University reinstate paper towels in dorms before the administration made its decision.
Clifford Ashton, Director of Physical Plant, cited Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines as one of the reasons for the decision.
“CDC recommended additional attention to hand hygiene,” wrote Ashton in an e-mail to The Argus. “We were concerned that relying on students to use personal towels in lieu of available paper towels would be counter to that recommendation.”
The initiative to eliminate paper towels was spearheaded by the Recycling and Waste subcommittee of the Sustainability Advisory Group for Environmental Stewardship. The plan would have removed paper towels from 167 bathrooms and was projected to save the University about $20,580 a year. According to Ashton, after the H1N1 pandemic has subsided, the plan to remove paper towels may be reconsidered.
According to Connecticut news outlets, as of May 25 there have been 102 cases of swine flu in the state, though none have been fatal. Although there are currently no recorded infections on campus, Smith is almost certain that H1N1 cases will soon arise.
“That we’re going have some cases is highly probable,” Smith said. “How many we’re going to have is hard to predict but I’m hopeful not too many. Right now we’re modeling around a possibility of a couple hundred cases over the course of the year, but that’s just because we need a number.”
Swine flu has been declared the current dominant strain of influenza in most parts of the world, beating out the seasonal flu, according to the World Health Organization. A report released by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) said it is a “plausible scenario” that the pandemic could infect 30 to 50 percent of the U.S. population this flu season. According to the report, swine flu could result in 30,000 to 90,000 deaths. In comparison, the seasonal flu typically kills up to 40,000 people a year.
Despite the stark projections, Smith said that while H1N1 should be taken seriously, it is important to put it in perspective.
“I think there’s cause to be attentive,” he said. “I think right now it is mostly mild and we want to be responsible to that reality and not drum it up out of proportion.”
While there have not yet been any cases of H1N1 on campus, some University students may have already had the illness. Jordan Lewis ’13, for example, was hospitalized when he felt ill in May. He remained in the hospital for a day and was then sent home. His own doctor later tested him for swine flu and it came back positive.
“The symptoms are the exact same [as the seasonal flu],” Lewis said. “The only difference was that I did end up getting pneumonia and getting treated with antibiotics.”
Lewis thinks he contracted the virus while working in an office building in New York. He recovered after two weeks and is now on campus.
Smith said that the University already has plans in place from previous years to address a number of emergency situations, including a pandemic.
The University’s Emergency Management website posted its sixth H1N1 flu update on Sept. 4. The latest update, which is the most detailed thus far, includes information about the virus and guidelines on how students and faculty can protect themselves. The update includes four specific guidelines for preventing sick students from spreading the virus: washing hands, respiratory etiquette, regular cleaning and self-isolation if one falls ill.
According to Smith, special houses have been designated for sick students in order to help contain the virus. The University is also planning to distribute surgical masks and cleaning equipment such as sanitary wipes to residents of woodframes. In addition, the University has arranged for vaccine clinics to have 1,300 more doses of seasonal flu vaccines on hand than last year, and to have them administer the shots nearly one month earlier.
The swine flu vaccine will not be widely available until at least mid-October. Since infections rates are predicted to peak in mid-October, and those vaccinated will need several weeks to develop immunity, the vaccines will lose much of their effectiveness, according to PCAST.
When the swine flu vaccines are finally available, college students will be among the first to receive them because they fall under the list of groups deemed by the CDC to be especially susceptible to the virus. In contrast to the seasonal flu, which mostly infects people over the age of 65, swine flu targets younger people. Serious and fatal cases of swine flu have occurred mostly in people under the age of 50. According to Smith, there are plans for a vaccine clinic to be set up at the Freeman Athletic Center to administer swine flu vaccines to students and residents of Middletown once the vaccines become available.
A Davison Health Center flu line has been set up to take calls from students asking about symptoms or how long they should remain isolated. Students are being encouraged to use the phone line rather than visit the Health Center in order to limit exposure to others.
According to Smith, if enough students become infected with swine flu, an emergency plan would go into place that could result in the University being closed.
“There’s a threshold in number of cases where it would be expedient from a public health perspective for not so many people to be together; i.e., for school to be closed,” Smith said.
Smith advises students to stay informed about the pandemic and practice common sense.
“I think the best thing for people to do is to stay plugged in and to be sensible when they’re sick,” he said.