Calvin: H1N1 ready
October 16, 2009
At the start of a busy semester, in the midst of her work on Calvin's pandemic flu response committee, Nancy VerMerris came down with what she believes was H1N1. It gave her a new respect and a new resolve.
"It wiped me out," she said. "I was in bed for two days on the weekend and missed another three days of work. A week later I was back to maybe 50 percent. I wouldn't wish this flu on anyone."
VerMerris, director of health services for Calvin, said she'll be getting the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it arrives on campus because her case is a "presumed" case, but was not confirmed by a lab test. Thus her desire to be completely safe and also get the vaccine.
"We don't know yet when we'll get it (the vaccine)," she said, "but we are in line for 5,000 doses, enough for all of our students, faculty and staff, and we'll offer it at no charge. One of those doses, I know, will be for me."
H1N1 hits hard for VerMerris
A nurse practitioner, VerMerris knew a lot about H1N1 before catching the illness. At the time she got sick the college's pandemic flu response committee had met half a dozen times to discuss prevention of H1N1, recognition of symptoms, how to handle an outbreak on campus, how to communicate with students, faculty and staff, when the college might get doses of the vaccine and much more.
Actually getting H1N1 put a whole new perspective on things for her.
"Although H1N1 has been a relatively mild illness so far it still laid me low for almost a week," she said. "I'm salaried. I could afford to be away from work. But for our students, who are paying good money to be here, it's a different story. They worry about missing classes and they have part-time jobs they can't miss. So for me to get H1N1 helps me to understand a little bit better what our students might be facing. I guess that's one of the good things, maybe the only good thing, for me about getting (the illness)."
VerMerris, who had the seasonal flu vaccine back in August, figures she was exposed to H1N1 through her work in health services. There nurses have seen more than 20 students over the past month who presented classic H1N1 symptoms such as low-grade fever, cough, upper respiratory inflamation and body chills. Although she is a self-described germaphobe her attention to hand washing and other ways to avoid the flu didn't do her any good in the long run.
"Getting the flu pointed out to me," she said, "how truly contagious this illness is."
Pandemic flu response committee tracking H1N1
That level of contagiousness is why Calvin has been so vigilant about educating students and making available products to help student stay healthy. VerMerris said it's also why the college has a pandemic flu response committee, a group of staff and faculty from the biology department, campus safety, communications and marketing, health services, off-campus programs, physical plant and residence life, who meet weekly to prepare for swine flu or other pandemic-type illnesses.
"Living in close quarters, physical contact, like hand shaking, hugging, high fives, are all part of a college campus," said Heather Chapman, the college's environmental health and occupational safety office and a pandemic flu response committee member. "These types of factors help spread illnesses such as H1N1, so it's important for the Calvin community to prepare ahead of time. If you wait too long to begin preparation, you end up scrambling to react to a situation that can easily magnify. Colleges and universities are high-risk areas for H1N1 to spread, and many campuses have been fighting outbreaks early on this semester. Our preparation helps to keep attention focused on H1N1, which will hopefully help us to control the number of illnesses we see this year."
Next crisis always on the radar
Calvin vice president Henry DeVries, a committee member who has a Ph.D. in biology, said that the fact that H1N1 has been pretty mild so far has been good for the committee working to prepare for it:
"We've met a lot," he said, "and we will continue to meet through December. What's been good is that we are not in a crisis situation in terms of the impact of H1N1. So we can be proactive as a committee and we can talk through all kinds of scenarios—what it would look like to quarantine students and where we would put them, how to get meals to kids who are sick, what would happen if campus safety or physical plant people were all out sick, the best ways to communicate with students, and parents, how to deal with off-campus students—really, a whole range of topics. But we're doing so in the midst of a relatively calm situation. So it really is helpful as we think ahead to what the next crisis might be."
For VerMerris the next crisis is always on her radar.
"Something as simple as norovirus can hit a college campus hard," she said. "And then there are things like avian flu, which is still out there. As a health services staff we are always paying attention to what the next issue might be. I worked on our original pandemic response document a couple of years ago and while it's something you hope you never have to put into practice, the reality is that working on it now, with H1N1, will help us deal as a college with what might come our way next."
No fears from VerMerris of H1N1 vaccine
For now VerMerris is looking forward to getting the H1N1 vaccine on campus and said that despite some public concerns about the safety of the H1N1 vaccine she is following the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and will be among the first in line to get the shot when it arrives on campus.
"There's a long history of flu vaccine production that is behind this H1N1 vaccine too," she said. "You always read media reports of vaccine dangers anytime a new vaccine comes out, but the H1N1 vaccine is not something I am going to avoid because of vaccine concerns. My biggest concern right now, to be completely honest, is not getting the vaccine on campus in time to protect our students, faculty and staff. I am hoping we get it here soon."
~by Phil de Haan, communications and marketing