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Boston-area colleges bracing for students’ return

When Tara Daniels returns to her college classes this week she will be wearing a mask and sanitizing her hands dozens of times a day. The junior at Stonehill College in Easton has leukemia, which has weakened her immune system. If she were to contract the flu, the consequences could be dangerous.

“The flu would definitely hospitalize me,” Daniels said Saturday in a phone interview.

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As thousands of Boston-area college students return to town for the spring semester, university officials are taking preventive measures to avoid further outbreaks of influenza. Some institutions, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Northeastern University, Simmons College, Tufts University, and Wellesley College, are offering free flu vaccinations to students. At a few of these schools students do not even need an appointment; they can walk into health services at any time.

Daniels, a communications major, said she did most of her work from home last semester. She will be moving back into a dorm, and is nervous about living in close contact with other students again.

But Daniels said she is most concerned about attending class, because she will spend so much time in a confined space.

Daniels plans to explain her condition to her classmates and ask that, if they come to class sick, they tell the professor so she can sit far away from them or not attend.

Still, Daniels said, she worries “because someone could forget to say something, or come to class with the beginning symptoms.”

‘It costs us about $10 a shot to purchase the vaccine. But we think it’s money well spent.’

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Boston College, where classes are set to start Monday, has sent out notices encouraging students to get a flu shot before returning to campus. BC cleaning crews plan to wipe down door handles and other public spots, following the procedures taken during the 2009 swine flu outbreak.

“In 2009, facilities and staff redoubled their efforts, and they committed themselves to constantly wiping down stairway railings, buttons in elevators, and wiping down door handles,” said BC spokesman Jack Dunn. “That will be part of our plan moving forward.”

Dr. Howard Heller, chief of medicine at MIT Medical, said the school has administered nearly 13,000 free flu shots to students, faculty, staff, and family members. Still, he is expecting a substantial number of cases at MIT, where classes resume in February.

“We are going to see a lot of flu here but we are not going to be overwhelmed because we’ve done enough advance planning and immunization,” Heller said.

More than 750 confirmed cases of the flu have been reported in Boston this season, the city’s health commission said. Last year, there were about 70 cases.

There have been at least five flu-related deaths in Boston, all adults over 65. A child under 6 also died after contracting the flu, city officials said. An official cause for the child’s death has yet to be determined. The city has declared a public health emergency.

Statewide, according to the state Department of Public Health, there have been 18 flu-related deaths this season.

With thousands of college students living in dormitories and other close quarters, the risk is especially acute. “It’s a good opportunity for viruses spreading,” said MIT’s Heller. “[But] a big chunk of our population is young, healthy people.”

Boston University is holding five flu clinics this week. Students without university insurance will be billed $30.

Other colleges are also charging, but amounts vary. At Suffolk University, students without the school health insurance plan pay $15, and at Brandeis University students are asked to bring $20 in cash.

Heller said MIT has instituted massive outreach programs, which include flu clinics that “run like military-style operations.” In addition to the clinics, the health services office has a “flu line” for students who have any flu-related questions.

MIT also has a program of student ambassadors, or “MedLinks,” who are knowledgeable about health issues ranging from sexually transmitted diseases to influenza.

Each MedLink is equipped with a medical kit, which includes medicine to help treat flu symptoms. And Student Support Services at MIT will authorize excused absences for students who are sick with the flu.

Mark Douglass, an associate clinical professor of pharmacy at Northeastern, where the spring semester started Jan. 7, said the university saw high numbers of students getting vaccinated last week.

The University Health and Counseling Services reported that approximately 250 students went to the office Thursday for flu shots, Douglass said. Typically there are only about 20 students per day who go in for the vaccination.

“People are just heeding the warnings,” he said.

Michelle Bowdler, the senior director of health and wellness services at Tufts, said the school has vaccinated approximately 40 percent of its students. In the past, Tufts administered about 1,200 to 1,400 flu shots each year, Bowdler said. But now that number is up to more than 3,000 shots per year.

Bowdler said that at Tufts, students are not charged for the vaccination. “It costs us about $10 a shot to purchase the vaccine,” she said. “But we think it’s money well spent.”

If a student contracts the flu, she noted, the consequences can linger.

“The students are here to learn,” she said. “If they get the flu they can be out of commission for one to three weeks and that can really affect their semester.”

Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@globe.com.
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