Faced with influx of patients, Health Service treats, prevents flu this season

The Health Service building pictured on March 6. Alina Murphy / The Tufts Daily

Tufts Health Service has seen an influx of student patients suffering from the flu, with 209 patients having visited Health Service this school year with flu-like symptoms, according to data provided by Jennifer Berrios, associate director of Administration for Health and Wellness.

According to Medical Director of Health Service Margaret Higham, this was a particularly bad flu season nationwide.  

“This was a big year,” Higham said. “The H1N1 season of 2008–2009 was bigger … but definitely [this season] is the biggest since then.”

Michelle Bowdler, executive director of Health and Wellness Service, further emphasized the strength of the flu this season.

“This year it seems that the flu is not that mild and the vaccine has been less effective,” Bowdler said. “The combination of those two is part of the reason why we’re seeing so much flu.”

Higham contextualized the flu’s prevalence on campus this season, explaining that when the percentage of patient visits due to flu-like symptoms exceeds five or six percent, public health officials indicate that there is an outbreak.

“[This year] we’ve been up to 10 to 12 percent of students showing up with flu-like symptoms,” she explained. “For the past couple of weeks it’s been the majority of [what we’ve seen].”

Higham was unsure about how long the season would last. She said predictions that its terminus would be in April, for example, are just speculation.

“Honestly, we won’t know [when the season will end] until it happens,” Higham said.

In response to the flu outbreak, Health Services has prioritized vaccinations. Higham pointed to the high vaccination rates at Tufts as an indicator of success, saying that Tufts had vaccinated 46 percent of its full-time students.

Bowdler verified this figure and pointed out that as Health Service’s stock of vaccines runs low, more Tufts students obtain vaccines from pharmacies.

“We really try to prioritize flu shots … [but] we do eventually run out of vaccines,” she said. “Also, some people choose to get it when they go home for vacation, as a lot of insurance companies choose to cover it now.”

Despite its success with vaccines, Health Service has seen an uptick in patient visits, according to Bowdler. She explained that since the flu is not easily treatable, doctors need to spend more time with their patients, increasing wait times. She emphasized, however, that these inconveniences did not detriment Health Service’s ability to treat patients effectively.

First-year Mika Lessnau said she waited for 15 minutes in the waiting room and 20 minutes in the exam room when she had the flu.

“I went there pretty early in the morning. I wasn’t really happy about the wait, because there [were] hardly any other patients there,” she said. “I know they try, but especially with students trying to manage everything, it should be quick.”

Bowdler acknowledged how busy the Health Service office has been, which has resulted in long student wait times.

“We have a wonderful staff … [They are] working as hard as they can to keep wait times as low as they can. It is true that when the volume is up and students are sick with something serious like the flu that it’s not as short of a visit. We’re trying not to have people sit in the waiting room for a prolonged period of time so they don’t contract the flu,” she said. “That’s why we tell all patients to wear masks … because we’re trying to protect them.”

Lessnau said she appreciated the quality service that Health Service eventually provided.

“Health Services made me feel very comfortable and were very supportive,” she said. “My doctor recommended certain medications … and checked in on me after my visit as well.”

Higham said Health Service prioritizes medication, drinking fluids and rest for sick students.

“Students who have the flu … can’t carry on with life as usual,” she said. “Force of will is not going to make them able to go to class.”

Bowdler summarized Health Service’s strategy for combating the flu.

“I think we always try to focus on prevention,” she said. “If we do a great job getting out information why flu vaccination is important, if we explain to students to please not go to class when they have the flu, [we can] reduce the numbers as best as we can… [This is] always part of [our] strategy, and it’s been very effective.”