H1N1 influenza follow-up from President David Skorton
3:15 p.m., Sept. 16, 2009
Dear members of the Cornell community:
I am writing to follow up on our email of last week regarding the H1N1 influenza and its impact on the Cornell community. As you know, we suffered the loss of one of our students last Friday from complications related to H1N1 influenza. The university has been in close contact with Warren Schor's family, and I wish to convey again my heartfelt condolences to them and to his many friends. They will need support and comfort from the Cornell Family in the days and months ahead.
While the vast majority of our students who contract H1N1 experience mild to moderate symptoms and recover within a week, the potential for serious complications - especially for people who have pre-existing medical conditions - and the discomfort of the symptoms even when they are relatively mild, reinforces our determination to be vigilant in our efforts to prevent the further spread of the flu. On Tuesday, the university launched an updated website "You & the Flu" where our students as well as our staff and faculty, can find useful information to take care against the spread of the flu.
I have received many messages from concerned parents, alumni and campus community members offering suggestions and expressing concern about what we are doing here on campus. In addition, as is to be expected, rumors are spreading that need to be addressed. This message is intended to address these issues and reassure you that the public health situation at Cornell is being well and ably managed. I also want to confirm that the university will remain open until further public notice, and there are no plans in the short term to alter our instructional or grading policies except on an individual basis to accommodate specific situations.
I would be remiss if I did not express our collective gratitude to the superb professionals at Gannett and the many volunteers who have stepped in to help. Their contributions are invaluable. I hope you will continue to share your concerns and suggestions with me in the days and weeks ahead.
To help protect the health of our campus community, the university has been actively preparing for the potential of a pandemic for a number of years. Since the emergence of the 2009 H1N1 influenza this past spring, we have been refining our plans to meet the unique challenges of this global pandemic within our campus community. Our aim has been to maintain instruction, research and outreach while doing everything possible to impede the spread of the virus, treat sick students, and adjust for increased rates of absenteeism due to illness.
We activated our plans as soon as H1N1 appeared among the student population. Although more than 600 students with flu-like illnesses have visited or called Gannett Health Services in the past three weeks, the symptoms they are experiencing are what one would associate with seasonal flu - sore throat, congestion, headache, fever, and, in a few cases, vomiting and diarrhea. The severity of symptoms has ranged from mild to moderate, and most students are recovering in three or four days without medical intervention and with no lingering complications.
The university's Gannett Health Services is doing a remarkable job. It has increased the number of available appointments for students (Monday through Saturday) and is providing phone consultation 24 hours a day, every day. Students with questions or concerns, those who have underlying health conditions - such as asthma; diabetes; immune deficiency; or disease of the heart, lungs, liver or kidneys; or current pregnancy - that could put them at greater risk, and those whose symptoms worsen or who develop complications are advised to consult with a Gannett health care provider. Sick students may obtain a free home flu kit from Gannett that includes a thermometer, Tylenol or ibuprofen, facemasks, tissues, hand sanitizer and flu information. And, Gannett staff members and trained volunteers make daily calls to students who are sick with the flu to assess their progress and support their recovery while they are in self-isolation. Gannett staff communicates daily with Cayuga Medical Center (Ithaca's excellent hospital), which provides urgent care for students when our facilities are closed or when a higher level of medical care is needed.
In addition, our residence hall advisors are trained to check in with ill students, and they have a direct line to Gannett if any questions, health or safety concerns arise. Resident advisors deliver sick trays from dining halls if friends are unable to do so. RAs also keep supplies and light food on hand for those who are recovering. Sick students living in off-campus housing who have meal plans are able to give friends their IDs and have them pick up their meals at dining halls. Many food deliveries have been made over the past couple of weeks.
The Athletics Department, Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, Residential Programs, the West Campus House System, and Cornell Dining are working closely with Gannett to support students who are ill. Calls from coaches, check-ins by residential staff, and academic support from advising offices all are part of the web of care we have in place for sick students. Facilities staff members are taking extra care in cleaning "high touch" areas, and hand sanitizers and tissues are widely available. Cornell's emergency medical service (CUEMS) and Office of Environmental Health and Safety have launched a "Got Soap?" campaign on campus.
Students, too, are taking a proactive stance in the face of the flu. They are providing comfort and support for sick friends, delivering supplies to support self-care and isolation, running errands, and sharing class notes. Through attention to personal hygiene, sharing information, and staying away from others when they are sick, they are working hard to protect themselves and each other. Last week the Student Assembly affirmed an Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) moratorium on fraternity parties in order to interrupt the increase in new cases on campus. The moratorium will be revisited at the IFC's weekly meetings.
Though Gannett has been very busy and wait times may be longer than usual, the current level of staffing availability has met the demand to date; we are doing our best to use our medical personnel wisely. Gannett is hiring additional staff to support the various contingency plans we have in place to address challenges that may yet emerge. We remain in frequent contact with the New York State Department of Health, and our approaches to testing, treatment, and care for ill students, as well as prevention and safety measures, follow closely their guidance for patient care and institutions of higher education.
We are confident that our measures related to medical care for students, our self-isolation strategy, support services in the residence halls, and our cleaning protocols and training plans are sound. The website "You & the Flu" has been re-organized to help members of the Cornell community find information more easily regarding all of these important aspects of our plan. Please visit it at www.cornell.edu/flu.
In terms of academic accommodation, the faculty has worked to remove the pressure sick students may feel regarding their studies. At the beginning of the semester, all members of the faculty received communications from Provost Kent Fuchs and Dean of the Faculty Bill Fry requesting that they adjust their class policies relating to attendance, work deadlines, exam make-ups and the like in order to encourage sick students to remain out of class until they recover. Members of the faculty were also asked to utilize online and other resources, whenever possible, to keep sick students abreast of course materials and instruction while they recover.
Last week, the university's Faculty Senate passed a resolution that reiterated the need for flexibility on such matters. There has been a very strong and positive response by faculty to these requests. However, given the very diverse modes of instruction across campus, there is no intent on the part of the university to mandate any specific academic measures or accommodations. For example, despite some rumors, there is no plan at the university level to move grading to a pass/fail basis. Instead, such decisions have been left to individual faculty members, their departments and their colleges. Students who feel they are not being given reasonable flexibility should speak to their advisors for assistance.
Beyond these measures, there currently are no plans to suspend normal instruction for any period of time. This follows guidelines carefully considered by public health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and the New York State Department of Health. The universal conclusion is that such an action would be ineffective, and indeed possibly counterproductive, in controlling the spread of the flu. Suspending classes would likely lead students to congregate in their residence halls, fraternities and sororities, apartments and social spaces for activities that pose even greater risk for flu transmission. And because the suspension of instruction is unlikely to halt the spread of infection, we would be facing the same problem when instruction resumed. Indeed, a short-term suspension of instruction would simply increase the strain on all students to complete the normal course of instruction in a truncated time period.
It is possible, though unlikely, that the situation could change so significantly that stronger measures would be warranted. This might occur, for example, if the flu virus became more virulent, or the level of absenteeism on campus became so high that instruction and other normal operations were significantly impaired. To date, we estimate that less than 2 percent of the student population has been ill at any one time, and in almost all cases the period of recovery has been quite short. In addition, we have not received a single report from any faculty member suggesting that they were facing too much flu-related disruption to continue effective instruction. Accordingly, and consistent with the approach of all our peers, we will continue instruction while at the same time seeking to mitigate the stress students may feel around their studies.
Accurate information remains key to successfully battling this outbreak. We are using every means at our disposal to make people aware of what is happening on campus, to alert them to particular health risks and warning signs, to make sure they know where to find help and support, and to engage them in a campus-wide effort to reduce the risk of transmission of this very contagious virus. In addition to the "You & the Flu" web site and Gannett's online resources, a dedicated email box, firstname.lastname@example.org, has had a great deal of traffic from students, parents, and staff. The Cornell Flu Line (607-255-0101) has been equally busy. We have communicated regularly with members of our community since before the semester began through broad e-mail messages, articles in the campus media, and targeted posters, newsletters, flyers and announcements.
We know this is likely to be a lengthy process, and we are already preparing to provide the much-anticipated H1N1 vaccine, probably just weeks after we complete our seasonal flu vaccination campaign. In the meantime, we continue to revise existing plans and develop new plans for reducing the risk and impact of the flu on our campus community and on each individual as further information and recommendations emerge.
I am asking each of us to take this outbreak seriously. Please follow the precautions we know will limit its spread - wash your hands often; use hand sanitizers when soap and water are not available; do not touch your hands to your mouth, eyes, or nose; don't share items that touch your mouth. If you do become ill, stay in your residence on or off campus, or at home until your fever has been gone for at least 24 hours. If your symptoms become more severe, contact your health care provider immediately (students should call Gannett 24/7). If you have an underlying health condition, speak to a health-care provider now about the additional issues you may face should you become ill. Reduce your risk of getting seasonal flu: get vaccinated (it's free to all students, staff, and faculty). As soon as the state provides information about the guidelines for H1N1 vaccine distribution, we will post it on the flu web site.
We hope you will monitor our online resources to stay abreast of our efforts. We also hope you will communicate with one another to make sure we all take the steps necessary to care for one another and prevent the spread of infection.
All the best,