University braces for H1N1 virus

By Daniel Pagan

The University of Calgary is hoping to foil a potential H1N1 breakout on campus by stressing personal hygiene and education as students return for classes.

Under the Canadian Pandemic Influenza Plan, all large institutions, including universities, are encouraged to have pandemic preparedness plans.

The first H1N1 case in Calgary occurred last April. To help prevent the virus’ spread the U of C installed hand sanitizers and unveiled a poster awareness campaign emphasizing the importance of hand washing and using hand sanitizer. Students and staff are also urged to practice additional personal hygiene measures such as covering their mouth and nose while coughing or sneezing.

The U of C’s Public Health First Response has been tracking H1N1 developments. The university is also discussing plans for administering vaccines to students and staff with Alberta Health Services.

Across the country, universities are preparing for a possible H1N1 breakout, including the University of Toronto, which has not ruled out campus closures or usage of residence buildings as “health centres” for affected students. In Nova Scotia, Dalhousie University released information in late July advising students to avoid shaking hands, hugging or kissing and to hold meetings over the phone instead of in person.

U of C communications director Colleen Turner said the university wants students, faculty and staff to be aware of how to avoid the H1N1 virus, through health information sessions during orientation week and communication activities before the start of classes. The university is updating the overall emergency preparedness plan to deal with the changing H1N1 situation.

“The university is in contact with Alberta Health Services to discuss the ongoing risks related to H1N1, including issues surrounding the beginning of the fall semester,” she said.

“U of C Health and Wellness experts are working closely with their counterparts in the provincial government and monitor directions of the Public Health Agency of Canada to ensure actions are co-ordinated and appropriate steps are being taken to deal with the H1N1 issue.”

Campus Security director Lanny Fritz explained they are working with the Department of Risk Management on preparation plans, while the university as a whole continues to follow AHS and the Public Health Agency of Canada’s recommendations.

“H1N1 is a new phenomenon, we are constantly reviewing and enhancing our plan to reflect the latest possible scientific and medical information that emerges,” said Fritz. “The emphasis right now is on prevention of the transmission of the virus as it is already in the Calgary community.”

Residence Services is preparing for a breakout in the residence buildings by educating new students and community advisors. Residence Services associate director Randy Maus explained they are not pre-emptivley closing down residence halls, but added it is a possibility in the case of a serious infection.

“As we conduct our staff training sessions, we are providing them with information on H1N1 prevention, symptoms and response,” said Maus. “Additionally, we will be giving students this information in their check-in packages.

“Furthermore, we are stockpiling various basic supplies in order to prepare for a potential outbreak, including gloves, masks and sanitizer.”

Fourth-year psychology student Nicole Pesta cut her family vacation in Mexico short last May following the first breakout. Pesta said she suspects the expected fall outbreak is being blown out of proportion.

“I feel very safe in both the precautions taken by the Mexican Government as well as by our university in its preparation for the predicted fall outbreak,” said Pesta.

Turner urged students and staff with influenza symptoms to stay home and seek medical help if symptoms worsen.

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