With hordes of undergrads returning from spring-break trips across the border, campus health staffers are planning for the worst. By canceling summer programs in Mexico and stockpiling supplies, they're trying to stop outbreaks before they start and at the same time attempting to reassure jittery students. At Columbia University in New York City where a graduate student on Sunday received a diagnosis of Type A influenza, which has been linked to swine flu the assistant vice president for health services, Dr. Samuel Seward, sent an e-mail to students urging them to cover their mouths when they sneeze and to clean things they touch often, like computer keyboards. "Avoid holding, hugging or kissing anyone who has a cold or the flu," he advised. (See pictures of the swine flu outbreak in Mexico.)
Over the past week, several colleges across the country have scrapped plans to send students to Mexico. The University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire announced it would nix a six-week summer program scheduled to start in Mexico on May 26, giving the 23 enrolled students a chance to visit Costa Rica instead; Boston's Suffolk University canceled a program slated to start in June. Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the University of Minnesota announced it was encouraging its 21 students currently studying in Mexico to return to the U.S.
Other campuses are taking precautionary measures closer to home. LeMoyne College, in Syracuse, N.Y., has stocked up on surgical masks and fever-fighting Tylenol. Harvard officials are meeting daily to monitor the situation and speaking directly with state and local public-health authorities for advice. San Diego City College is offering on its website a printable template for COVER YOUR COUGH signs. "We're being duly cautious," says Caroline Oyama, director of communications at the New School in New York City, which sent a memo to its 6,000 undergraduates this week urging them to wash their hands often and stay home if they're feeling sick. "You never know what it's going to turn into."
Perhaps not surprising, some college students are starting to get nervous. The health center at the University of Texas at Austin has been experiencing such a high volume of calls that an automated message now directs students to the center's website. If you are calling for general swine flu information but aren't feverish or coughing, the recorded message directs, "Please hang up."
Still, some undergraduates have managed to find a silver lining. On the website CollegeCandy.com, a student columnist from the University of Colorado at Boulder noted Monday that nerves about the outbreak may get students off the hook for skipping class. "While the rest of the world is freaking out, I couldn't be happier," she wrote. "The swine flu is the perfect excuse for just about anything this week and I plan to milk it for all it's worth."