The influenza virus has officially hit the Philadelphia area, bringing with it much harsher symptoms than in previous years that are already affecting students on campus.
“Normally if students have the flu, they call us and say, ‘I feel really crappy. These are my symptoms,’ and there are essentially self-care tips that our nurses or our doctors can give to the students as they ride out the flu,” Director of Campus Health Initiatives at the Student Health Service Ashlee Halbritter said. “What’s happening in larger numbers this year is that people’s symptoms are so bad that they have to be admitted to the hospital or the ER.”
As of Dec. 31, 2016, SHS tracked 50 cases of influenza-like illnesses this season, and the Pennsylvania Department of Public Health tracked 4,546 cases of influenza that tested positive in Pennsylvania, compared to the 639 cases that tested positive last flu season by the end of December. It is difficult to rely on these numbers to track the overall trend of the flu because, according to Halbritter, the flu peaks at different points each season, and last year, it peaked over two months later. Halbritter also said the flu will likely peak this year in a couple of weeks, and she expects to see the number of flu cases rise dramatically in subsequent weeks.
The 50 cases that SHS tracked also do not reflect the students that either called and received self-care tips over the phone or the students who did not contact SHS at all.
“[SHS is] overcrowded, overbooked, it’s impossible to get an appointment and most of the people that I know when they go don’t get any help, so why would I waste my time and go there?” College sophomore Carly Miron asked. “There’s nothing more upsetting than waiting in that waiting room, knowing you feel so horrible and then having someone tell you you’re fine, especially when it’s been confirmed by outside doctors that I wasn’t fine, and I did need actual medicine.”
Executive Director of the Student Health Service Giang T. Nguyen said those who are likely to suffer complications this year from the influenza virus are those who are not vaccinated, those who are pregnant and those with chronic diseases. Halbritter said those are the students she strongly encouraged to schedule an appointment with a provider to ensure their ongoing medical issues are not being compromised.
There are several campus health initiatives at Penn focused on preventing the spread of the influenza virus, including talks at sorority and fraternity recruitment ceremonies, posters around campus and three flu vaccine clinics in October, which take place every year.
One of their biggest challenges, Halbritter said, is that flu season always coincides with big group events on campus, such as on-campus recruitment — though, now that it has largely moved to the fall, to a lesser extent — and sorority and fraternity recruitment. Nguyen said that “running yourself ragged” is likely to just weaken your immune system and “make things worse on campus.”
“The most important thing for students to do if they get flu-like symptoms is listen to their bodies and not just push on,” Nguyen said. “That doesn’t reflect good character; it reflects bad judgment. You have to rest so your body can be focused on fighting the virus and getting better, as opposed to focused on staying up all night.”
On Penn’s campus, however, it’s not always that simple. Students said even when they’re sick, they still feel pushed to go to class, to go to their extracurricular activities and to complete all their schoolwork on time.
“I have no energy whatsoever to go to class, but you have to, and socially we’re being pushed to go out a lot and meet new people,” Miron said. “And it’s difficult to pay attention to what people are saying when your head is pounding and you feel like you’re dying, but when you get home all you want to do is sleep, but you’re playing catch-up, and I feel like I might fall behind because of this sickness that doesn’t go away.”
Halbritter said students should focus on preventing the flu, as opposed to anticipating ways to treat it. Simple tasks like washing hands more thoroughly, limiting alcohol consumption, drinking fluids and getting more sleep are all ways she encourages students to take care of themselves and other students.
“Building that stronger immunity, both individually but also collectively, the herd immunity, is helpful,” Halbritter said. “So that even if it’s a bad flu season in Philadelphia, it doesn’t have to be a bad flu season on Penn’s campus.”