Mills: Swine flu numbers withheld at request of county

The university is not releasing the number of students affected by the H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, at the request of Tarrant County Public Health, a university official said.

Don Mills, vice chancellor of student affairs, said that because the university is not testing everybody for H1N1, it would be misleading to release numbers.

“To say we have X number of cases is a guess, and it’s not really helpful,” Mills said.

However, Mills said the Brown-Lupton Health Center staff saw three and a half times as many people last week as they normally would in a week.

Mills said the Health Center is not testing all students exhibiting flu-like symptoms for the H1N1 virus because the test is expensive, and the H1N1 flu and type A influenza should both be treated with Tamiflu. All cases have been mild and most students recover within two to four days, Mills said.

Students who come to the Health Center receive a rapid test to diagnose type A influenza. If the results return positive, the university does not delay treatment by conducting a second, more conclusive test to determine if it is H1N1, according to a university statement.

The Health Center sent e-mails to professors requesting university-excused absences for students who visit the Health Center with flu-like symptoms. Additionally, Provost Nowell Donovan sent an e-mail to faculty members last week requesting professors allow students to make up missed work, Mills said.

Vanassa Joseph, senior public information officer for the TCPH, could not confirm whether TCPH instructed the university not to release numbers, but said the department had been in close contact with the university. TCPH is also not releasing the exact number of people sick with the H1N1 flu in the Fort Worth community.

Strategic communication professor Maggie Thomas said withholding information is not a wise public relations move.

“When you withhold information, it makes people think it’s negative information,” Thomas said. “In crisis communication, we teach that it’s a good strategy to inform people about what’s going on.”

Lisa Albert, associate director of communications, said the university wants to focus on treatment rather than number of students exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

“Because the number of ill students fluctuates, it is difficult to report ever-changing numbers,” Albert wrote in a statement. “TCU has chosen not to focus on numbers, rather on treating the ill students.”

Joe Quimby, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it is up to a university and the individual state to disclose the number of people who are ill. Maintaining a headcount at a local, state or federal level is not practical because the numbers would underrepresent the people who are ill or have been ill with H1N1, he said.

Mills said he has not received any complaints from parents about the university’s choice to not disclose the number of students exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

The university has taken precautions to limit the spread of the flu by setting up hand sanitizer stations throughout campus and requesting that students exhibiting flu-like symptoms self-isolate until their fever breaks, Mills said. He said the school cleans residence halls with hospital-strength cleaning supplies and hall directors can bring meals to ill students’ rooms.

Dr. Sandra Parker, TCPD’s Medical Director/Health Authority, said the university has taken the right steps to contain the virus.

“Given the reported clinical presentations of ill students, the situation on campus (rapid onset of illness in an at-risk population per epidemiological data) and the density of dorm living quarters, their approach was appropriate to limit the spread,” Parker said in a statement.

Mills said it is typical for students to become ill at the beginning of the semester because they live in close quarters and make a lot of personal contact after not seeing each other for a while. The primary difference is that most years, students become ill with colds or upper respiratory illnesses, while this year they became ill with the flu, Mills said.

“We usually think of a pandemic as a very dangerous thing,” Mills said. “But it doesn’t mean the illness is dangerous; it just means it is everywhere.”

Staff reporter Chris Blake and managing editor Julieta Chiquillo contributed to this report.