September 4, 2009
Dear Rice Parents and Families,
Every new academic year brings many traditions. Some are welcomed, and others, like the flu season, are definitely not. You are no doubt wondering about the health and well-being of your student, given the heightened level of attention the H1N1 virus is receiving in the news — and also wondering what Rice is doing about it. I am writing to provide you with some information that I hope addresses your questions and assures you that my colleagues at Rice and I are doing all we can to provide a safe environment for your student.
Every fall at Rice and at other universities, the semester begins with a number of students getting sick with minor illnesses as they deal with the stress of starting college and as they come in contact with a number of other students, but without a doubt this year is off to a faster-than-usual start. I know that a number of you have students on campus who are suffering with fevers, sore throats, coughs and other cold or flu symptoms. Usually right after orientation week and during the first few weeks of school, Rice’s Student Health Services sees a number of students with colds, but it is very rare for the flu to show up this early. As of this week, Student Health Services has seen 75 students with flu-like symptoms; 38 of them were confirmed as influenza with a rapid test, which does not indicate the type of flu virus. Dr. Mark Jenkins, the director of our Student Health Services, said it is already “like a bad February flu season.” This is a pattern being experienced by colleges and universities across the country.
The good news is that the majority of our sick students are experiencing mild cases and recuperating within several days without needing medical treatment. While we are concerned about their health and a speedy recovery, we are also concerned about keeping other students from getting sick.
The main way flu spreads is from person to person in droplets produced by coughs and sneezes, so we are asking sick students to avoid contact with others until at least 24 hours after the fever is gone, except to get medical care or other necessities. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that students who have family in the local area go home for the duration of their illness, so some of you may already have a child back home. Other students are being asked to stay in their rooms and make arrangements for a friend to deliver their meals. The CDC advises roommates of sick students to stay six feet away and wash their hands frequently.
We understand that sick students may experience some anxiety about being away from classes for several days. We have asked our faculty members to allow them to make up homework assignments, tests and lab requirements, and not to require a doctor’s note. Faculty members have also been encouraged to make course materials and notes available electronically so that sick students can access them from their room or home.
Later this semester we will offer seasonal flu shots to students for $13 at the Student Health Center. Students in the CDC’s higher-risk groups are eligible for a free flu shot. The CDC defines higher risk as people who have chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma, heart or kidney disease or are pregnant. Vaccines against H1N1 flu are not expected to be available until October, and we plan to offer them as well.
The CDC predicted that the H1N1 virus would return during regular flu season this fall and winter, and Rice’s Crisis Management Team began preparing for flu season over the summer. Facilities crews installed alcohol-based hand sanitizers in buildings across campus, and posters and flyers with information about how to avoid contamination and what to do if you get the flu have been posted in public areas of most buildings. Flu kits with medical information and thermometers to monitor fever are being provided to the residential colleges. And links to more information about the flu are posted on www.rice.edu.
You will be able to find frequent flu updates on rice.edu, and members of the Crisis Management Team are meeting weekly and more frequently as necessary to manage the situation. If an outbreak warrants more significant measures like potentially suspending classes or closing campus temporarily, the CMT will communicate an announcement through e-mail, text messages, rice.edu, local media and Rice’s automated emergency telephone line, 713-348-8888. Our goal is to communicate often and through multiple channels to ensure that students and their families have the necessary information they need. For ongoing information, check in with www.rice.edu.
As we continue through the flu season, I hope that you are spared the misery of influenza. Do not forget to wash your hands often, and get a flu shot.
David W. Leebron