North Wind And Sun

Conference Focuses on Flu Preparedness

When the Spanish Flu swept through the world in 1918, it killed as many as 200,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million worldwide. The Pioneer Valley was not immune to the pandemic’s effects, and neither was Amherst College. In 1918, nine Amherst residents and two College students died from the disease. Northampton, by comparison, lost 97 residents in the pandemic.

With this sobering past in mind, faculty and staff of the Five Colleges congregated on Wednesday Jan. 16 for the “Five College Conference on Pandemic Planning for Higher Education” in Lewis-Sebring Commons. Officials and staff from the Five College area and beyond attended the event, and viewed presentations from public health officials, public security officials and emergency planners.

The issue of emergency preparedness, especially for pandemic or epidemic illness, is not foreign to the College. According to Richard Mears, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at the College, Amherst has been in the process of reassessing its emergency preparedness since at least as early as November 2003. “There are up to 104 [emergencies and disasters] the College is prepared for,” Mears said. “We have looked at everything that could potentially happen on this campus or in this area and are supposed to be able to prepare for it.”

According to Mears, the College already has a number of tools and precautions in place on campus to counter many of the most common problems that could potentially arise in the event of a pandemic. “We have the capability of defending in place,” he said. “We could set up certain buildings where people are already sick, and we could set up negative air filtration systems that can actually pull the contaminants out of the buildings and keep the buildings clean.”

Mears said that certain buildings on campus were already furnished with such technologies, and other buildings could be used in addition to the ones already equipped. Dormitories are also provided with backup generators.

In addition, the College has already stockpiled vital medical materials, including M95 masks, Lysol IC and various 3M products. The school is, however, wary of investing in large quantities of vaccines and symptom suppressors such as Tamiflu. “The only thing we don’t stock,” said Mears, “is something like Tamiflu, or a vaccine, because we are not even sure [they are] going to work, or how long it can be stockpiled for.”

Mears believes that the greatest challenge in preparing for an influenza pandemic is determining at what point the College would close. “Nobody wants to do it,” he said, “and nobody really knows when the appropriate time is to do it.”

Mears does see a potential security issue in students panicking in the wake of a flu pandemic. “I know a lot of people are going to take as much concern that they think is going to be appropriate. We know that once people start to become sick, they are going to leave here, which is not the best thing to do.”

Mears conceded that Amherst College itself does not have the legal authority to prevent students from leaving the campus. That authority lies with state health officials or, more locally, the Amherst director of public health.

The College, however, does have the authority to prevent students studying abroad from returning to the College if they are living in an area affected by an influenza pandemic. In the event that such a situation arises, Mears said, “The College may have to take steps to eliminate those individuals from coming back to the College until we can take corrective action.”

“We are hoping this never comes to fruition,” Mears said. “But if it does, we think we are pretty well prepared for it.”

(Originally published 30 January 2008 in The Amherst Student)

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