In response to a decreasing number of reported H1N1 cases, McGill is ending pandemic-related activities prompted by H1N1 influenza.
The decision followed the announcement from the Quebec Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports, which stated that pandemic-related activities can now be discontinued.
“H1N1 at this point seems to have died down, and we’re not seeing much flu,” said Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, director of McGill Student Health Services.
As a result, absentee reporting has returned to normal, and the online self-reporting system has been removed.
The first incidence of H1N1 declared through the self-reporting system occurred in mid-November. The system was in place for roughly three months, and served as a mechanism for sick students to report symptoms of H1N1 to the Student Affairs Office or Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Office. After self-reporting, students had the equivalent of a doctor’s note for nine days, without putting pressure on McGill Student Health Services or the clinical system in Montreal.
Reported cases peaked in early November. Over 2,000 students used the online system to report symptoms of H1N1 during the three months that the system was operational.
Other universities have also begun to remove online absentee reporting systems for symptoms of H1N1.
“In the new year, we looked at [the number of reports] and … we ended up going back to our regular reporting,” said Lori Lewis, a spokesperson for the University of Windsor.
“We were surprised and very satisfied that our numbers weren’t higher,” Lewis said. “We didn’t have nearly as many faculty or students out as we thought we might.”
Temporary installations, such as hand sanitizers near entrances and exits, will also be removed.
“Hand sanitizers should not be considered replacements for hand-washing, and multiple locations for hand-washing are available throughout all our buildings on all our floors,” said Jim Nicell, associate vice-principal university services.
If the entire McGill population used hand sanitizer once a day when entering and exiting buildings, maintaining the units would cost approximately $200,000 a year. Additionally, evaporative alcohol from the sanitizer can negatively impact air quality, and production and transportation of the sanitizer is not environmentally sustainable.
Installation costs $1.50 per unit, and the effectiveness of the system is dubious.
“Public health officials never came out with a recommendation for the use of hand sanitizers, except in hospitals, which is appropriate,” Nicell said.
McGill spent approximately $200,000 on pandemic preparedness, which included materials, supplies, equipment rentals, additional personnel, and a rough estimate of the efforts of the coordinators.
“About $100,000 [of that] was specific costs that were incremental on top of everything else we do around here that were not budgeted for,” said Nicell.
However, Nicell hopes that the experience will prove to be useful. Identifying key decision makers and collecting contingency plans from across the university will play a key role in McGill’s future preparedness.
“[We] will continue towards a more robust approach to contingency planning in the future,” Nicell said. “It’s been a fabulous learning experience for everyone.”
However, Tellier said that in the future he hopes to take a more proactive approach.
“We did a lot of things that were right,” Tellier said. “Unfortunately the problem was we were reacting instead of being proactive and I think we could have been a little more proactive as a university.
“We are keeping notes on how things were put into place, and there will be a report so that hopefully these plans will be available in the future. How useful that will be is hard to say. If we have another pandemic in two or three years, these plans and whatever we put in place will just need a little bit of tweaking.”
One approaching health concern is the seasonal flu. While vaccinations are typically done in the fall to prepare for late fall and winter flu waves, seasonal flu vaccinations are only now in progress.
Transmitted primarily through airborne bodily fluids, the best defence against seasonal flu is the vaccination, proper coughing and sneezing etiquette, and hand washing.
“At this point, we are not seeing the seasonal flu,” said Tellier. “[But] these past few years in Quebec [it] has usually started at the end of January, beginning of February, even into March, so we may see it ramp up again in the next few weeks.”
Current incidents of H1N1 are reported at a rate of a few per week; which is similar to rates reported by other educational institutions. While McGill has stopped its specific H1N1 absentee monitoring, it will continue to be alert for spikes in H1N1 cases.
“We don’t react just when our population is impacted,” Nicell said. “When public health officials announce a third wave is on its way, reactivate your pandemic preparedness plans – and they’re ultimately the decision-making body – then we will do so.”
Nicell added that he was also surprised how effectively many students implemented some of the university’s suggestions.
“One thing I’m totally shocked about in this process is how we’ve changed people’s behaviour. You see [coughing into your elbow] all the time. I never thought we could change the way people cough and sneeze,” said Nicell.
H1N1 vaccinations continue to be available through local CLSC clinics. Vaccinations for the seasonal flu are now available through Student Health Services.