Season 1 – Episode 20: Flu Season and College Campuses
According to the CDC, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the duration and timing of flu activity has become less predictable. The World Health Organization (WHO) mentions treatments for the flu exist and range from those focused on relieving symptoms to antiviral drugs for those in a high-risk group. While colleges and universities are comprised of several shared spaces, prevention of the flu is possible through social distancing, washing your hands, and staying home when you are sick, among other steps to protect yourself and others from influenza.
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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis and this is On Campus. Today, what is influenza or the seasonal flu? What measures faculty, staff, and students can take to protect themselves, and how concerned college and universities should be for the upcoming flu season? I spoke with Philip Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine and School of Public Health at Brown University and infectious disease Physician. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations that are discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are solely those of the presenter. Hi, Phil, how are you?
Philip Chan: Thank you for having me.
Darren Gaddis: To get us started, what is influenza or the seasonal flu and what are some predictions for the upcoming or current 2022/23 flu season?
Philip Chan: So flu, caused by influenza, is a respiratory virus that’s been around forever and causes significant respiratory illness in a number of people, similar actually to SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19. It can be mild in a lot of people, it can also be severe and cause things like fever, chills, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue, et cetera. I think importantly, especially in younger people, it can cause in babies and children, it can cause very severe disease and certainly, in older people, we also see a number of hospitalizations and deaths every year, frankly, from people due to influenza.
So it is a serious thing. Similar to many other respiratory viruses, it does mutate throughout the year, which is why we get yearly increases, especially during the winter months due to the flu or influenza. So this year, unfortunately, because more or less we’re really getting back to normal, which is a good thing in general, we are expecting higher than normal levels of flu, including severity flu. And in fact, in other parts of the world that are currently experiencing their flu season, that’s exactly what we’re seeing.
We’re seeing higher levels of flu, we’re seeing more people who get sick, and even more people that develop significant illness from this. So I’m reminded that we should, especially for upcoming winter seasons and late fall, that we should be cautious and take appropriate precautions to protect ourselves and those around us from not just flu, but also from COVID, of course.
Darren Gaddis: And with all this information in mind, why should universities and colleges be concerned about the upcoming influenza or flu season ahead of us?
Philip Chan: Influenza, or the flu, can cause significant illness in people, especially those that are immunocompromised or people at the end of the age spectrum, so the very young or the very old. A lot of people, of course, can have mild symptoms, but there are people, certainly, that develop more severe symptoms. And even in younger otherwise healthy people, sometimes a flu can really knock you on your butt and put you out of commission for a few days, for sure. This tends to be more than just a common cold in a lot of people.
So it’s important, certainly, for college students, college campuses, and staff, especially professors and older folks that some basic precautions be taken to flu. And I’m also reminded, of course, that flu is transmitted largely the same way as COVID. And in fact, that’s one thing to keep in mind, during the last couple years, we saw much lower levels of the flu because we were doing everything like social distancing, like masking, like good ventilation. So we saw really low levels of flu.
Darren Gaddis: Phil, with all of this information at mind, how can administrators inform their larger campus communities about preventing the spread of influenza or the seasonal flu?
Philip Chan: One thing that we like to let administrators and leadership know about just preventing not only flu but also COVID and other respiratory illnesses, is really just creating a culture where if you’re sick, you should not go to class. You should stay home and isolate. And that’s been a message that we’ve hammered home, of course, for COVID. It applies as well to influenza. And ideally, if people have respiratory symptoms, and certainly when we know that there’s flu circulating, they should get tested for both. And there’s a number of platforms out there and tests where people can get tested for both. There’s also a rapid flu test similar to the rapid COVID test, but just being cognizant that when someone has symptoms that they should really isolate and stay home. And certainly, ways to screen for symptoms to ask for symptoms is certainly a big thing. And then I think just everything else that we’ve ever done for COVID is also a consideration for flu.
So certainly if there’s circulating flu on campus, you may want to consider masking. Similar if there’s circulating COVID on campus, you want to make sure that ventilation is okay. Social distancing, washing one’s hands, so having hand sanitizer available. All these things that we do that we have done for COVID during the last couple of years will also prevent influenza and the flu as well. And, of course, the big thing for the flu is, make sure to get your flu shot this year. And I think that’s really important, especially for this season, is to make sure to get your flu shot and that should offer some level of protection. And remembering also, even if it doesn’t fully protect you from the flu, that it should reduce the symptoms and the severities should you even get flu.
Darren Gaddis: And what are some measures faculty, staff, and students can take to protect themselves against influenza or the seasonal flu, this flu season?
Philip Chan: So the most important thing I think is to get the flu vaccine. It is now available in September, October here. So I definitely would recommend for folks to get the flu vaccine. You can get the flu vaccine at the same time as any other vaccine, the COVID vaccine, et cetera. The flu vaccine is a vaccine that’s been around for years. It’s really safe. It generally offers some level of protection against the flu, and that varies a bit year per year depending on how influenza mutates. But it generally is very safe and definitely offers some protection against flu. And I think just remembering again, if you’re sick, don’t go out, make sure to wash your hands, make sure that if there’s flu circulating as certainly for leadership, consider some more systems-level interventions, whether it be masking or social distancing. Again, all the things that we know work against COVID also work against flu.
Darren Gaddis: And even if an individual takes all these measures, what should they still do if they are feeling sick this flu season?
Philip Chan: So if someone is feeling sick with symptoms of flu, interestingly, we used to call it flu-like symptoms, lately, we’ve been calling it COVID-like symptoms, but both flu and COVID can present with very similar symptoms, fevers, chills, just not feeling well, body aches, a cough, sore throat, things like that. People should get tested both for COVID and for influenza. And also keeping in mind that there’s many other respiratory viruses that can cause similar symptoms aside from COVID and flu. But certainly, if someone has symptoms, they should get tested. Most clinics have access to rapid flu tests similar to rapid COVID tests, and people can get their results right there while they’re waiting.
Darren Gaddis: Phil, what else should we know as we’re headed into the flu season this year?
Philip Chan: I would be very cautious about the flu season this year, and I think, again, we’re seeing relatively more severe flu in other parts of the world. And I do anticipate that this will be a worse flu season than normal. I’m reassured, of course, in college campuses in general with younger folks that it tends to affect younger adults much less severely. But I think just as a note, similar to COVID, we do want to reduce, where we can, the amount of circulating flu because some people do get very sick and we do see anywhere from 20,000, sometimes upwards of 50,000 deaths a year due to influenza.
So again, it’s not benign. So I think as we think about colleges and universities, what we can do, it’s really thinking about the broader community, thinking about those who may be immunocompromised, thinking about some of the older professors perhaps, but really doing what we can to prevent. But I do anticipate that we may have a significant flu season this year. Reassured though that we have a lot of the tools in place from vaccines to symptom screening, washing hands, ventilation, a lot of these things that we’ve looked at during COVID will also prevent against the flu.
Darren Gaddis: As always, Phil, thank you for joining me today. It’s been a pleasure.
Philip Chan: Thank you very much for having me.
Darren Gaddis: Be sure to follow, like, and subscribe to On Campus with CITI Program to stay in the know. I also invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses and webinars that may be of interest to you. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions. You may also be interested in CITI Program’s Disaster Response and Research Reactivation course. Please visit the CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings.
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Meet the Guest
Philip Chan, MD, MS – Brown University
Philip A. Chan, MD, MS, is an Associate Professor in the Department of Medicine and School of Public Health at Brown University and infectious diseases physician. Dr. Chan also serves as Consultant Medical Director for the Rhode Island Department of Health Division of Preparedness, Response, Infectious Disease and EMS (PRIDEMS).
Meet the Host
Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program
He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.