Self-Isolation: The On-Campus Option

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Although the University of Illinois was able to send many H1N1-infected students home to recover with their parents, an on-campus option was needed. Illinois has among the most international students of any college campus in the United States, said Jim Rooney, EDD, Associate Director of Housing. More than 2,700 of those students are undergraduates, who tend to live on campus. "We always have students here (who) can't just go home." As a result, housing leaders planned for H1N1-infected students who would recover on campus, by expanding a "medical rooms" concept already in use, Rooney said. There are two single rooms with private baths on the Illinois campus that are available at all times (one on a male floor and one on a female floor). A room may be used by a student with a broken leg who cannot easily reach his/her regular room, or by students with temporary medical conditions. For example, a room was once used by a student suspected of having tuberculosis as a place to await test results (which were negative). During November and December 2009, housing leaders identified about a dozen such rooms in campus housing, Rooney said. Sick students who did not immediately return to their parents' homes could self-isolate in one of these rooms. Housing staff would contact those students daily (usually via phone) for a non-medical check-in. Ill students could review the campus dining service menu online and relay to housing staff what food they would like. Staff would then bring their meals. Staff also stocked in-room refrigerators with sports drinks and healthy snacks. The rooms had linens, TV, furniture, and of course, internet. "It worked fine," Rooney said. Some students stayed for the full course of their illness; others stayed until a parent transported them home. At the peak of H1N1 illness on campus, 11 of 12 rooms were in use. In addition to simplifying recovery for those affected, isolating ill students helped reduce concerns for the broader campus community and other students' parents, Rooney added. "I'm obviously concerned about the student who is ill, but also the other 50 they live with." As the number of ILI cases dropped, housing leaders opted to have campus-bound students self-isolate in their residence hall rooms. Resident Advisers (RAs) ensured that any ill student had a "flu buddy," a friend from the same floor, to bring meals from the dining hall. "The RAs would help make sure that the person was covered. We didn't leave it up to chance. We made sure that they had someone who was helping," Rooney said. He added that he is not aware of any secondary infections due to an ill student who was self-isolated infecting a roommate. As a result of the H1N1 pandemic, Illinois will be encouraging general health precautions useful against a broad range of illnesses, Rooney said. For H1N1, Illinois residence halls had signs up about hand-washing, not sharing drinks, covering coughs and so on, he said. "Most of what the professionals were telling us to do were things we should communicate to students every year," Rooney said, and noted that now they would. "Those same precautions protect students from things that are much more likely than H1N1," such as norovirus, Rooney said. Consistently sharing such hygiene messages, even basic ones, may be useful for college students, Rooney pointed out: "Students don't always follow the health behaviors they should."

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