Nebraska Braces for Swine Flu But Students Seem Unfazed

By Pam Robinson

Aug 31, 2009 10:26am

ABC News On Campus reporter Alina Selyukh blogs:

On the busiest day of the year, the first Monday of the fall semester, cashiers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln bookstore rang up 7,695 transactions, said bookstore director John Parish.  Only one of those recorded a sale of Purell hand sanitizer.

By the end of the week, the number had doubled. Which means, on a campus of almost 23,000 students, the bookstore had sold only two 8-ounce bottles of sanitizer. It appears Cornhuskers aren’t in a panic – yet – over the possibility of an H1N1 flu epidemic.

Off campus, the state recorded its third death from the virus. Across the border, officials at the University of Kansas said Sunday that 291 students are reporting swine flu-like symptoms. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, 49 students are considered probable H1N1 cases.

But at UNL, where the administration and faculty are bracing for the worst, students seem unconcerned.

 “There is a point where there is nothing more we can do,” said University Housing Director Douglas Zatechka. He has organized daily “deep cleans” of the dining halls, swathed walls in posters reminding everyone to “WASH YOUR HANDS” and personally patrolled cafeterias – only to see most students ignore the sanitizer cans at the entrance.

 “I don’t want panic, because panic doesn’t help anybody,” Zatechka said. “But I would like some sense of serious attention.” From his conversations with officials at other universities, he worries that the flu, once it hits, “just spreads like wildfire. One day (one student) has the sniffles; the next day they have 100 kids home.”

 The housing department already has stockpiled 1,500 surgical masks. Officials also have gallons of hand sanitizer stacked up, with more arriving any day. “The way they (students) are using it now,” said Dining Services Director Ronald Burke, “it’s probably a lifetime supply.”

  Maybe Nebraska just hasn’t been shaken yet.

 Officials at the University Health Center report only three walk-ins with flu-like symptoms during the first week back and said they’ve stopped testing for H1N1 because it takes a week to get test results, by which time the illness usually passes. Dr. James Guest, director of the center, estimated that a few more – no more than 50 – cases might be scattered around campus. But he fully expects that to change.

 Guest said UNL was behind its peers in the Big 12 Conference in the number of possible swine flu cases, “but we’ll catch up. Give us time.”

 The university administration has sent mass e-mails listing federal guidelines for avoiding contact with the virus and encouraging professors to loosen attendance policies. A few instructors have placed swine flu reminders on the one thing students definitely read: the course syllabus.

University athletic officials are concerned with students’ risks outside of the classroom, too. Some sports teams have had special H1N1-focused meetings.

 “I definitely think we (athletes) are their first priority so I think they’ll take the steps and procedures to keep us safe,” said Jordan Burroughs, national wrestling champion and UNL senior sociology major. Dr. Lonnie Albers, director of UNL athletic medicine, said the athletic department is following directives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and is “anxiously awaiting the vaccine.”

 Yet nobody could say when – or if – the vaccine will arrive on campus. First the government has to approve one and send Nebraska enough doses to cover the under-24 age group of college students.

 To Julie Soroko, first-year music graduate student, the news of no existing swine flu vaccine was a surprise. She had thought H1N1 was just like an ordinary flu. Jennifer Bass, a senior business administration major, noted that most students on campus seem to treat the “pig flu,” as she hears it called, as a joke.

Bass, who works at a barista at a campus Starbucks, said the coffee kiosk in the student union has been selling Purell anti-bacterial wipes. She said employees put out a box in early summer. The same box, Bass said, still sits on the counter.

Elicia Dover, Emily Ingram and Brandi Kruse contributed to this story.

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