WU prepares for more active flu season amid ongoing pandemic

| News Editor
A brick railing sits in front of an awning that reads "Habif Health & Wellness Center"

The Habif Health and Wellness Center on the South 40. (Photo by Curran Neenan / Student Life)

The Washington University community is preparing for a more active flu season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic through measures such as the continued indoor mask mandate and the flu vaccine requirement for students that went into effect Nov. 1.

Steve Lawrence, one of the University’s top infectious disease experts, said the flu season would be worse than last winter, when the number of flu cases across the country hit record lows, but he was not sure by how much. 

“We are just about 100% certain we’ll see more of [the flu] this year compared to last year, but we really don’t know if it’s going to be a terrible flu season — which is something that could happen, and we’re a bit concerned about that — or if it will still be somewhat muted because there is still some degree of masking going on in our broader community,” he said.

Winter conditions and more indoor activities could result in an increase of COVID-19 and flu cases, Habif Health and Wellness Center Executive Director Cheri LeBlanc wrote in a statement to Student Life, but masking could help limit how bad the flu season gets while also curbing the number of COVID-19 cases. 

LeBlanc wrote that Habif has been back to full scheduling and has been testing students who have coughs or colds for both the flu and COVID-19. So far, she wrote, “most of the tests are negative for these diseases, so the infections are from the usual viruses circulating in the community this time of year.”

The number of active COVID-19 cases has remained relatively low on the Danforth Campus since there was a peak of 49 active cases on Sept. 13, with just four active cases among faculty and staff and eight among students as of Tuesday’s update to the COVID-19 dashboard. As in-person activities have increased compared to last semester, LeBlanc believes more student interactions could be an explanation for more students getting sick with non-COVID-19-related illnesses.

“It is not unusual for students to catch more than their average number of colds when starting university,” LeBlanc wrote. “I have seen this for the 30+ years I have been in student health. When people come together from all over the world and engage in social activities it is common for respiratory viruses to circulate and infect many people.”

According to Lawrence, the most important measures that make a difference in keeping COVID-19 case numbers low are having a vaccinated campus and wearing masks. Despite more in-person activities and more students on campus, COVID-19 numbers are lower compared to last year. However, Lawrence also stressed the importance of remaining vigilant with these measures to prevent increases in numbers as the weather gets colder, like symptomatic testing and the screening tool, even if the screening tool is not popular.

“Even if the tool itself isn’t being used, the concepts are critical,” Lawrence said. “Don’t go to class, or even worse, don’t go to a party. If you’re having symptoms, please get tested before going to a party.” 

To address student’s medical needs when Habif is closed on the weekends and in the evenings, the University has partnered with TimelyCare, a telehealth service, as a way for students to get evaluated after hours.

Senior Ritu Trivedi believes that professors should extend some of the accommodations made for students with COVID-19 to other illnesses like the flu. 

“I think having that extra precaution[ary] measure and having greater allowance in being able to attend class on Zoom or stuff like that is helpful and decreases the pressure of going to class even though you’re not feeling well,” Trivedi said.

Some students also expressed frustration about the University’s communication of the Nov. 1 flu shot deadline. Although Sam Brady-Myerov supported and complied with the flu vaccine requirement, she believes Habif and the University could have communicated with students in more ways about the Nov. 1 deadline. 

“I was a bit not happy with how WashU told us,” Brady-Myerov said. “We got like one email and it was at the bottom of an email that was like, ‘hey, you need it by next week.’ I was like, ‘oh, okay, I guess I need this,’ and there was one available slot to sign up. I was just more frustrated that they never told us and then had very limited availability to get [the flu shot], and the only CVS is like a 20-30 minute walk from campus.”

Sophomore Rosie Lopolito agreed. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to look at Instagram to learn about flu shots or things like that,” she said. “I wish they had better communication.”

After wearing masks for over a year, Lawrence does believe there is potential for a mask-free future, possibly as early as late-spring. 

“I think there’s a plausible chance — and I think a lot of us believe this — that at some point in the spring we will probably see some sustained decreases to the point where we don’t think wearing masks universally is going to be necessary to keep risk at a very acceptable level,” Lawrence said. 

Orli Sheffey contributed reporting.

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