Campus & Community

University fine-tunes response plan for H1N1

4 min read

University officials, building on lessons learned after a cluster of H1N1 cases was identified at the Dental School last spring, are fine-tuning plans to respond to any “swine flu” cases that appear on campus this fall.

Public health officials expect the H1N1 influenza virus to spread widely in the United States during the next flu season, but concerns about the severity of the illness have subsided since it first emerged in Mexico at the beginning of the year.

“The good news is that so far the novel H1N1 is more like the seasonal flu than we had originally thought,” said David Rosenthal, director of University Health Services (UHS). “As we learned with the Dental School cases, a patient is typically sick for 48 to 72 hours and then has a full recovery.”

Nevertheless, Rosenthal is helping to lead an effort to limit the spread of the flu across campus through broad communications instructing students, staff, and faculty how to avoid getting sick, and what to do if they begin experiencing symptoms.

“We will be providing a great deal of information and education to get the message out to all,” he said.

Rosenthal and other UHS officials have been working with the University’s Incident Support Team (IST) to make preparations for any reappearance of H1N1. The IST, comprising representatives from key operational departments across the campus, already has plans in place to deal with a potential outbreak of the illness. Those plans include:

  • Direct communications to students advising them about H1N1 and how to avoid it.
  • Enhanced cleaning procedures for areas that have been visited by anyone identified as an H1N1 patient.
  • Plans for safely accommodating students who may become ill.
  • Increased Web-based tools and a new telephone “hot line” for communicating updates in the event of another H1N1 outbreak. For up-to-date information about H1N1, visit

“We are planning for a serious scenario, but hoping for the best,” said Thomas Vautin, the acting vice president for administration and leader of the Incident Support Team. “Every sector of the University, from Human Resources to Dining Services, is closely involved in preparations for this flu season.” To prepare for the season, UHS has ordered 19,000 doses of seasonal flu vaccine, up from the usual 12,000 doses. UHS officials are also planning to increase the number of clinics where the vaccines can be administered on campus and to begin administering them to at-risk individuals as early as Oct. 5. UHS has also been increasing its supply of antiviral drugs, such as Tamiflu. Because of a limited supply of these medicines, UHS officials are updating their protocols to determine who should be prescribed antivirals, Rosenthal said.

At Harvard College, the dean of the College and her staff have been working closely with University officials to develop plans to respond to H1N1. University officials are maintaining close communications with public health officials, who say that a vaccine specifically tailored for H1N1 influenza won’t be available before October.

But the best way to stay healthy, health officials say, is to practice good hygiene: Wash your hands often with soap and water, and cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Influenza is thought to spread mainly from person to person, so avoid close contact with sick people. Symptoms of H1N1 influenza include body aches, fever, malaise, chills, and, in some cases, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. If you become ill, avoid crowds and make an appointment with your clinician.

In the event of a new cluster of H1N1 on campus, the IST will work closely with the provost’s office and other Mass Hall leaders to manage the University’s response. Directives issued in response to any emergency are coordinated by the IST and carried out by a system of Local Emergency Management Teams in the individual Schools and major departments.

Harvard Human Resources is reviewing workplace guidelines to assist managers and employees who may become ill. No formal University-related travel restrictions have been put in place, but University policy now requires all students, staff and faculty traveling abroad on Harvard business to register with the SOS International Travel Assistance Program. See the program’s Web site for more information.