H1N1 Infection Rate Subsides, but Health Officials Still Pushing Vaccinations

December 11, 2009 — New cases of H1N1 influenza are down dramatically at the University of Virginia and nationwide, but health officials warn that the so-called "swine flu" may make a comeback.

U.Va.'s Elson Student Health Center is seeing only five to 10 new cases of influenza-like illnesses per week – a far cry from the 20 to 30 new cases doctors were seeing each day in mid to late October, said Dr. James C. Turner, the center's executive director and the president of the American College Health Association.

Nationally, the infection rate peaked at about 29 cases per 10,000 students, he noted. The current rate is around five cases per 10,000 students. College-age adults are among the high-risk populations for H1N1 infection.

College health officials had braced for a possible surge in new cases after students returned to campuses from the Thanksgiving holiday, but that did not materialize, Turner said.

Still, he said that it's too early to declare the pandemic over. The virus could mutate and resurface.

"Pandemics historically have had multiple waves – three, four, even five waves," he said. "It's still possible that there could be another wave," perhaps in late January and early February.

Another wave could be blunted by two factors, he said: the number of people who have already had the disease and thus may have some immunity, and the number of people who have been vaccinated.

Student Health held two general H1N1 vaccination clinics for students and administered more than 4,800 doses. The center maintains a "very limited supply" for students, but plans no additional student vaccination clinics. "We feel like we have met the demand," Turner said.

Student Health also gave 4,200 doses of seasonal flu vaccine before running out.

While more H1N1 vaccine is becoming available – about 10 million to 12 million doses each week, Turner said – supplies are not yet sufficient to hold vaccination clinics for most University faculty and staff, said Marjorie Sidebottom, U.Va.'s director of emergency preparedness.

Local supplies have been allotted to high-risk populations, including health care workers and schoolchildren, she said. More recently, other critical populations are being vaccinated, including police officers.

She said she hopes to hold general vaccination clinics soon. She has scheduled clinics before, only to be forced to cancel them when vaccine did not arrive as anticipated.

Sidebottom and Turner agreed that despite the drop-off in H1N1 infection rates, it is still important to be vaccinated when the opportunity arises.

"We don't know what it's going to do in the spring," Sidebottom said.

Turner recommends flu shots even for those who may have already been sick. Unless they tested positive for H1N1, they cannot be sure whether they had swine flu or seasonal flu, he said, and even if H1N1 was the culprit, "You can get a booster effect from the vaccine, and get longer immunity from it," he said.