Penn State develops ways to monitor flu trends and student recovery

University Park, Pa. -- University health officials are sharing various kinds of information this fall to help the community understand the breadth and impact of seasonal flu and H1N1 illness across the student community, and to stay in touch with ill students as they rest and recover.

As of Sept. 30, University Health Services (UHS) has seen more than 900 students with influenza-like illness since the beginning of fall semester. Most recovered without complications. This week one student was hospitalized with complications of H1N1 influenza, but he has done well and was discharged from the hospital after a 48-hour hospital stay.

Penn State's Division of Student Affairs, through the Office of Residence Life, has created a simple self-reporting page through its eLiving Web site. University Park students living both on campus and off are encouraged to log in to the eLiving site to register their flulike illnesses, whether seasonal flu or suspected H1N1, through the Student Flu Status link. The link also is posted on several UHS online flu pages.

The flu reporting site is intended for use by all ill University Park students -- regardless of living situation, whether or not they have visited the Student Health Center for diagnosis, whether they have been seen by a hometown physician or have stayed home since the onset of symptoms and are administering self-care. Registering through the Student Flu Status site will provide those students with support during their illness via check-in calls from Student Affairs staff. Trained by UHS staff, these staff members will call registered ill students regularly and check their symptoms by referring to a short list of questions

Ill students who live on campus, are recovering from the flu in their residence hall rooms and who are not receiving assistance from others with meals can request meal delivery through these calls. All students, living on or off campus, also can update the callers on how they are feeling, and callers can be alerted to any complications that ill students may be developing.

In addition, UHS works closely with Mount Nittany Medical Center's emergency room to coordinate care for University Park students who seek medical attention for the flu there. UHS will provide follow-up care to students seen at the medical center if UHS receives information about them.

In the classroom setting, about three dozen faculty members who teach at University Park have volunteered to report attendance rates one time per week. This representative absence data is being collected to help understand how student illness may be impacting the educational process and to assist with the University's H1N1 planning. By comparing classroom absence data with data on Student Health Center visits, residence hall card entry swipes and residence hall dining usage, the University has been able to develop a useful student portrait.

"We don't know the 'normal' absenteeism rate, so there is no baseline data," explained Jeremy Cohen, associate vice president and senior associate dean of undergraduate education. "Some faculty are including baseline data from previous years that helps us to identify meaningful changes in absenteeism. Although not a scientific survey, the absence data these faculty members are sharing will provide a first alert to our planning teams and enable us to continue to place the welfare of students, staff and faculty at the top of our decision making."

Based on information received from this representative classroom population, the class absenteeism rate during the week of Sept. 21 was about 11 percent.

Margaret Spear, director of University Health Services, emphasized that students who feel ill should check their symptoms against the most common flu symptoms to see if they have the flu.

"A sudden onset of fever greater than 101 degrees, prominent headache and muscle aches, extreme fatigue or weakness, cough, sensitivity to light, painful or red eyes and often a sore throat are indicators that a person probably has the flu and should stay home to recover until 24 hours after their fever subsides without the aid of medication," Spear said. "They are encouraged to call UHS with questions. If a student is part of a high-risk group -- if they are pregnant or have a chronic medical condition such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis or heart disease -- then we would like to check that student's condition in person. They should call for an appointment with a health care provider.”

To avoid becoming ill, it's important for individuals to practice good flu etiquette -- cough and sneeze into a tissue or into your elbow if necessary, and wash your hands frequently with soap and water. For more information about flu resources, visit http://flu.psu.edu.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010