Being a JMU student means living elbow-to-elbow with about 20,000 neighbors, exponentially upping one’s odds of catching the flu. As JMU rounds the crest of flu season, one cough in a crowded lecture hall could unleash a swarm of new hosts.
Andrew Guertler, the medical director of the JMU University Health Center, said that since July, the center has treated 814 students who exhibited “flu-like” symptoms as of January 27. During the same time period, Guertler’s staff specifically diagnosed 26 students with the flu. However, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, rapid diagnostic testing for influenza may only be 50-70% effective.
Additionally, those figures don’t include those who might prefer to visit off-campus clinics.
Guertler said college students are more at risk than people of the same age demographic who aren’t students. He calls it “the nature of going to college.”
Kyle Seifert, a biology professor who specializes in immunology, said the flu is an upper respiratory infection that spreads through the air and is “extremely contagious.” Victims of the virus are often bedridden for at least a week.
“At a place like JMU where there is a large student population and a lot of them live in the dorms, the virus could take over campus pretty quickly,” Seifert said.
Guertler said dorms are the biggest contagion threat. Other hotspots Guertler said to beware are hallways, dining halls and “jammed-packed” parties.
Guertler said college students’ stress and lack of sleep, which weakens their immune systems, is also to blame.
Each year, the UHC waits for the CDC to announce that the flu is widespread before it begins diagnosing students with the virus. Guertler said the CDC issued that notice four weeks earlier than usual this year.
“Every flu season is different, and there’s no way to know until you look back on what the flu season was like,” Guertler said.
Additionally, Seifert said Americans have contracted Influenza B more frequently than Influenza A this season — a rarity considering Influenza A is traditionally more common. 68% of cases in Virginia are Influenza B, according to a report by the Virginia Department of Health. Seifert said Influenza B is less severe than Influenza A.
Unfortunately, Guertler said this season’s flu vaccine hasn’t efficiently prevented Influenza B cases. He still recommends the immunization shot regardless of its failures and how late in the season it is.
“Millions of people get the flu every year,” Guertler said. “If you can get even a 30% reduction in millions, that’s a big deal.”
UHC orders a limited number of flu shots because 95% of JMU students have insurance, Guertler said, which typically provides the vaccination for free. Students can get vaccinated for $23 in the center while those supplies last or could’ve participated in the two-day UHC event in October when local physicians who accept insurance perform vaccinations on campus.
Guertler said it’s especially crucial for someone with an underlying medical condition to be vaccinated because they’re at greater risk for death. Young children and people who are elderly are also considered high risk.
College students are typically in better physical shape and survive their bouts of the flu. However, Seifert said, they don’t get off “scot-free.”
“Although it doesn’t cause as many deaths in college students, it can be very debilitating,” Seifert said. “It can take a couple of weeks for a person to recover from having the flu, which is a lot of work for a college student to miss.”
Guertler said flu patients’ most “miserable” symptoms are typically fever, chills, aches, pains and headaches.
The CDC estimates that there have been between 10,000 and 25,000 flu-related deaths this season. The virus claimed a record number of 79,000 lives during the 2017-2018 season and a record low of 12,000 lives during the 2011-2012 season.
Because the flu is a virus, it can’t be treated with antibiotics. Guertler recommends self-care to his patients in the form of rest, fluids and pain medicine. He said flu victims should “isolate” themselves and not attend class to halt the spread of the virus. A person with the flu is contagious for up to seven days, but Guertler urges students to “respect and protect the JMU population” by waiting at least 24 hours after their fever breaks to resume their normal schedule.
And although an antiviral treatment like Tamiflu reduces the virus’ severity, it’s not a “Hail Mary.”
Guertler said the CDC only recommends Tamiflu for people with underlying medical conditions and their caretakers. Additionally, Guertler busted the myth that Tamiflu makes a person with the flu less contagious.
Guertler noted the recent hysteria concerning the coronavirus, which is also an upper respiratory infection.
“Yes, [coronavirus] kills people, but influenza is also a deadly virus,” Guertler said.
In an email, Vice President of Student Affairs Tim Miller said JMU is monitoring the spread of the coronavirus, but there’s “no need for concern in our community.” He urged students to perform the same good hygiene practices required to prevent the spread of any viral illness.
Guertler said the typical flu season spans from October to March, but last year, it extended until May, and he said there’s no way to predict how long it’ll fester this year. Guertler said he doesn’t want students to shack up in their dorms until flu season ends, though.
“We can’t become complacent,” Guertler said. “Influenza is a serious virus. It kills a large number of people a year … We need to respect it, and therefore, stay vigilant, but we don’t want to fear it … You can’t live your life that way.
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.