Staff ed: WashFlu

Please just stay home

The “WashFlu” has invaded our campus—and we’re all struggling to cope.

The flu has seemed ubiquitous on campus in the weeks since students have returned from winter break. It has become less than outlandish to see students milling about Danforth Campus decked out in surgical masks (a la James Fauntleroy at the Grammys last weekend), presumably either to protect themselves from contracting the flu or to prevent themselves from spreading it to others. Evidential of this epidemic, Washington University students received an email from Dr. Cheri LeBlanc, medical director at Habif Health and Wellness Center, last Tuesday, Jan. 23.

“As many of you know this is a tough flu season,” the email read. “St. Louis has been hit particularly hard, and we are seeing that reflected on our campus.”

In the 13 years that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has monitored influenza, the entire continental United States is classified as experiencing “widespread” flu for the first time. H3N2, this year’s most prominent strain, is aggressive. Flu seasons with this particular strain often exhibit more hospitalizations and, ultimately, more deaths. H3N2 mutates quickly, and devising an optimal vaccine can be tricky. Some researchers have said that this year’s flu vaccine may be much less effective than usual, with some studies showing only 10 percent efficacy.

Nonetheless, as the email from LeBlanc states, the CDC recommends that unvaccinated people continue to receive flu vaccines, despite the early spike in cases. However, when a student clicks on the link provided in the email to schedule a flu vaccine appointment at Student Health Services (SHS), no appointments are available, regardless of how far in advance the student attempts to schedule an appointment (we checked through April 2018). The student is also informed that “SHS has a limited number of flu shots available,” so walk-ins are not permitted. The email does not suggest alternative locations offering flu shots, though many are available.

As of Jan. 20, 767 Missourians have died of pneumonia and influenza-associated causes this flu season, and the state has seen five school closures. Graphs of influenza in Missouri show a steep, early spike in the number of diagnosed cases. And in an interview with Student Life, LeBlanc reported that Washington University has seen more flu cases in this year already than in last year’s entire flu season (the average is usually 200 to 300 cases per year).

For the many students who do catch the flu, symptoms may last five to seven days, and beyond that, students may continue to feel fatigued for days following. The CDC recommends staying home an additional 24 hours after fever dissipates.

With the beginning of the semester upon us, sick students may feel pressure to attend as many classes as possible to avoid getting behind on assignments. They may also be nervous to meet attendance requirements set in course syllabi. And recently, some professors have made announcements asking ill students not to come to class.

However, these professors need to ensure absolute clarity when altering their attendance expectations. Students should not be penalized (or worry about being penalized) for being struck down by this vicious virus. So long as students continue showing up to classes sick, the flu will continue to circulate rapidly—and we’ll continue to hear sniffles in class.