Summer 2009

University Response to H1N1 a Team Effort

As a special strain of influenza A known as H1N1 began spreading, causing widespread attention and alarm worldwide this spring, University employees—from communications and facilities to the Student Health Service and the dean of students—joined forces to make sure the GW community was informed and prepared.

In April, GW President Steven Knapp asked Senior Associate Vice President for Administration Ed Schonfeld and Associate Vice President for Academic Operations Jeff Lenn to assemble a team to address the potential impact of H1N1 at GW. No strangers to emergency preparedness, Schonfeld and Lenn quickly convened a team of 30 GW employees, including physicians from the faculty of GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, to develop and manage the University’s response. A 10-person
subcommittee of the team met daily for the first half of May and was tasked with monitoring the progress of the five students diagnosed with H1N1, cleaning high-use University locations, addressing parent inquiries and keeping the University community informed.

GW’s Student Health Service performed free screenings. Throat swabs of students who tested positive for influenza A were sent to the District of Columbia Department of
Health (DOH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Public heath issues are both a concern and responsibility of the Student Health Service, and we continuously monitor infectious diseases on the campus and in the community,” says
Susan Haney, associate director for the Student Health Service. Associate Vice
President and Dean of Students Linda Donnels and Associate Dean of Students Mark Levine coordinated moving diagnosed students to new rooms, contacted their parents and professors, organized cleaning and ensured students received information on preventive health measures and testing available. “We tried to counterbalance the hysteria in the media by being methodical and calm in our own setting,” says Donnels.

Tasked with assisting in preventing further infection, Associate Vice President for Facilities Juan Ibanez says his division increased the frequency of residence hall and high-use facility cleanings and performed special cleaning for the rooms of students
identified as at risk for H1N1. “We distributed hand sanitizers in each of our residence halls,” says Ibanez. “We passed along information about H1N1 to our staff and tracked rooms occupied by students with suspected H1N1. We also posted information
regarding the cleaning procedures.”

To disseminate the latest information on the virus and DOH and CDC guidelines to the GW community, Assistant Vice President for Communications Sarah Baldassaro and staff in GW’s Division of External Relations monitored H1N1 developments and worked
with the GW Student Health Service and the DOH in coordination with the GW task force. During a two-week period, the office sent out seven updates, including two online letters from Dr. Knapp, through GW InfoMail, GW Campus Advisories and the Parent Services listserv. “It was important to make sure members of the GW community heard from the University directly about any developments and what actions were being taken,” says Baldassaro.

Protecting private medical and other information about the students diagnosed with
H1N1 raised legal issues, which were addressed by GW’s General Counsel’s Office, says Senior Counsel Richard A. Weitzner. The office, in conjunction with the Division of
Human Resource Services, also examined the application of health, safety, leave and
disability laws and policies for students and employees, he adds.

Lenn and Schonfeld say the University received positive feedback about the proactive steps taken to address H1N1. They credit the quick response of University leaders for having “the most beneficial effect on the health of the GW community and the ongoing operations of the institution.”

Dena Iverson, director of communications for the D.C. Department of Health, commends GW’s swift and coordinated response to H1N1 on campus. “We appreciate the collaborative spirit with which they worked with us as we dealt with this new strain of flu virus,” says Iverson. “Their actions helped minimize the spread of H1N1 on the campus and beyond.”

The team assembled for this response to H1N1 will be working during the summer
months to prepare the University for a possible return of the virus during the 2009-10 academic year.

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