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Annual winter flu outbreak sweeps across Bowdoin’s campus

February 15, 2019

Over the last few weeks, providers at Health Services have treated hundreds of students with flu-like symptoms. This noticeable uptick in flu cases would be unusual at most other points in the academic year, but according to Jeffrey Maher, director of health services, an increase in flu cases immediately after Winter Break is an annual occurrence.

With the high volume of requests for appointments, providers at Health Services have been seeing more patients than usual in an attempt to accommodate everyone. On some days, Maher has been double-booked, seeing between 18 and 24 students each day instead of the usual 13 or 14. Typically, all providers at Health Services together treat at most 40 students each day; in the past couple of weeks (on the busiest day, 57 students were treated).

“The actual flu virus is in the community year-round, but it picks up after the holidays,” said Maher. “[This is] primarily because, once the weather gets cold and people are spending more time together in confined spaces, they’re sharing their germs in a more concentrated way.”

Health Services diagnoses students with a “flu-like illness,” but this does not mean students do not have a strain of the actual influenza virus. Maher explained that, since two or three students went off-campus and received swab tests for influenza viruses that came back positive, there is no longer a need to conclusively test any individual patient.

“Once we know influenza has infiltrated a community, we no longer need to swab someone for the flu … we diagnose the flu as ‘flu-like illness,’ but we don’t necessarily call it ‘influenza A’ or ‘influenza B’ precisely, because the treatment is the same,” said Maher.

Students diagnosed with flu-like illnesses exhibit symptoms such as fever, headache, body aches, coughing and sore throat. The symptoms typically last between three and five days. Maher said that many students’ symptoms are relatively mild, particularly if they received a flu vaccine.

“I think the flu shot is reasonably effective—I think most of the students that we’re seeing that have a more severe case of the flu were not vaccinated for flu,” said Maher. “We do see some students that were vaccinated that still have symptoms, but they tend to be milder.”

Health Services has administered 825 flu vaccines this flu season—all for free. Maher explained that this number indicates that Health Services has vaccinated around half the student population, but he pointed out that a number of students receive vaccines off campus as well. The majority of vaccines administered by Health Services were given to students during flu clinics in September and October, but students are still able to walk into Health Services and ask for a vaccine during open hours or receive a vaccine during an appointment made for a different purpose, provided they are not sick at the time.

In addition, Health Services cooperates with departments to vaccinate larger groups of students at once, with the idea that those students will then encourage others to get vaccinated. Maher explained that athletic trainers bring entire teams in for vaccines, and many Residential Life staff members come to health services to get vaccinated and encourage the other students who live on their floors or in their houses to do the same.

Taylor Yoder ’19 was diagnosed with the flu last week and has slowly been recovering since. She no longer has intense flu symptoms, but she has experienced some complications and still has a cough and laryngitis.

“It’s probably the worst I’d ever felt,” Yoder said. “I’d never had the flu. It was the one year I didn’t get the flu shot … I was pretty much bedridden for about three days, and then I’ve kind of been slowly inching back into things this week.”

When her symptoms were more intense, Yoder relied on friends to bring her food and medicine. She said the flexibility of her professors kept the experience from being terribly stressful in terms of academics.

“I think just because so many people are sick right now, it’s easier to be flexible because you’re just having to be flexible for the whole class,” Yoder said.

Maher explained that Health Services works with students such as Yoder who experience complications from the flu. Pneumonia is the most serious potential complication, but it is also rare among healthy, college-aged people. Dehydration is more common.

“We see students who haven’t eaten well or drank well—they’ve had fevers and chills for a couple of nights, and so now they’ve sweated out more fluid than they’ve taken in,” Maher said. “They come in, somewhat dehydrated, so we have those students hang out and drink some fluids … they perk up just by drinking.”

Alex Gentle ’19 and Spencer Towle ’19, who are roommates, were both sick with the flu last week as well. Both visited Health Services and received self-care packages with ibuprofen, Tylenol and cough drops. Students who are too sick to go to dining halls are also given boxes of non-perishable foods and clear liquids that Dining Service brings to Health Services.

Gentle and Towle also did not get the flu shot this year, which they attribute to, as Towle said, “a series of forgettings.”

“I forgot before break and over break, and when I came back from break I was like ‘oh shoot, I need to get that,’” Gentle explained. He had planned to visit Health Services to get a vaccine the day he got the flu. But, he still plans to get a vaccine.

“There are still a couple of other strains of flu that you can get even if you’ve already gotten the flu,” Gentle said. “So I’m still planning on getting it, but I was just waiting to get better.”

In Maine, flu season lasts until April, when the weather improves enough to allow people to spend time outside, decreasing the ease with which germs can be exchanged in indoor spaces. Health Services is continuing to offer vaccines; Maher anticipates that 25 more vaccines will be administered in the coming week. In addition to getting a flu vaccine, he advises students to avoid people who are visibly ill and to wash their hands frequently.


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