As thousands of Boston-area college students begin returning to town for the spring semester, university officials are taking preventative measures to avoid further outbreaks of the influenza virus.
Some institutions, including MIT, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Wellesley College, and Harvard University, are offering free flu vaccinations to students. At a few of these schools students do not even need an appointment – they can walk into health services at any time.
Boston College, where classes are set to start Monday, has sent out notices encouraging students to get a flu shot before returning to campus. BC cleaning crews plan to wipe down door handles and other public spots, following the procedures taken during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.
“In 2009, facilities and staff re-doubled their efforts, and they committed themselves to constantly wiping down stairway railings, buttons in elevators, and wiping down door handles…,” said BC spokesman Jack Dunn. “That will be part of our plan moving forward.”
Dr. Howard Heller, chief of medicine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the school has administered nearly 13,000 free flu shots to students, faculty, staff, and family members. Although he is expecting a substantial number of cases at MIT, where classes resume in February, he is hopeful there will not be any massive outbreak.
“We are going to see a lot of flu here but we are not going to be overwhelmed because we’ve done enough advance planning and immunization,” Heller said in a phone interview Friday.
The city has confirmed 700 cases of influenza this season and four flu-related deaths. Last year, Boston had only 70 confirmed cases of the flu. According to the state Department of Public Health, Massachusetts has had 18 flu-related deaths this season. The swell of confirmed cases prompted Mayor Thomas M. Menino to declare a public health emergency Wednesday.
With thousands of college students living in dormatories and other close quarters, the risk is especially acute.
“It’s a good opportunity for viruses spreading,” said MIT’s Heller. “[But] a big chunk of our population is young, healthy people.”
Boston University is holding six flu clinics from Jan. 14 through Jan. 21st. Each clinic runs for at least six hours, and students without university insurance will be billed for $30.
Other colleges are charging, but the vaccination is cheap. At Suffolk University, students without the school health insurance plan pay $15, and at Brandeis University students are asked to bring $20 cash.
Heller said that MIT has instituted massive outreach programs, which include flu clinics that “run like military-style operations.” In addition to the clinics, the health services office has a “flu line” for students who have any flu-related questions.
MIT also has a program of student ambassadors, or “Medlinks,” who are knowledgeable about health issues ranging from STDs to influenza. Each Medlink is equipped with a medical kit, which includes medicine to help treat flu symptoms. And student support services at MIT will assist students who are sick by delivering meals and corresponding with their professors.
Mark Douglass, an associate clinical professor of pharmacy at Northeastern, where the spring semester started on Monday, said the university saw high numbers of students getting vaccinated last week.
The University Health and Counseling Services reported that 250 students went to the office Thursday for a flu shot, Douglass said. Typically there are only 20 students per day who go in for the vaccination.
“People are just heeding the warnings,” he said.
Michelle D. Bowdler, the Senior Director of Health & Wellness Services at Tufts said the school has vaccinated approximately 40 percent of its students. In the past, Tufts administered about 1,200 to 1,400 flu shots each year, Bowdler said. But now that number is up to more than 3,000 shots per year.
“It costs us about 10 dollars a shot to purchase the vaccine,” she said. “But we think its money well spent.”
Bowdler said that at Tufts, where classes are set to begin this week, students are not charged for the vaccination. She said the reason Tufts takes flu prevention seriously is because if a student contracts the flu, it can negatively impact his or her entire semester.
“The students are here to learn,” she said. “If they get the flu they can be out of commission for one to three weeks and that can really affect their semester.”