Amherst Magazine

The Swine Flu Slumber Party

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By Emily Gold Boutilier

“Imagine a slumber party where nobody knows each other, nobody feels well and everyone wants to sleep in their own bed but can’t,” says Samantha Regenbogen ’11. She was among at least 16 Amherst students isolated in Seligman House, a previously empty dorm, when swine flu made its appearance on campus last April and May.

With the H1N1 virus (swine flu) in the news, the college announced on April 30 that, as a precaution, six students with Type A influenza (common flu), would be isolated in Seligman. Regenbogen, who had a high fever and severe cough, packed clothes and schoolwork and moved in. The college also sent flu samples from two of the students to be tested for H1N1, a subtype of Type A.

Both samples came back positive for H1N1. “The news should be no cause for alarm,” Warren H. Morgan, M.D., director of the Keefe Student Health Center, wrote in a letter to the community on May 4. “The college has already been treating every student who has tested positive for Type A influenza (common flu) as an H1N1 flu case—taking the extreme measure of isolating them for at least a week from the onset of symptoms and prescribing them antiviral medications.”

The isolated students didn’t go to class and were under orders to make recovering—not studying—their priority. They played pingpong, watched movies and played a version of Six Degrees of Separation: when and where did they get in close enough contact with each other to pass the flu? Meals arrived from Valentine. (“We did illicitly order Chinese food one night,” Regenbogen says. “It had to be a very slick operation to ensure that the delivery man did not come in contact with any of us.”)

Because the Centers for Disease Control was inundated with testing requests, and because every Type A case at Amherst was treated as H1N1, the college did not send other samples for H1N1 testing. However, a sample from a third student in isolation, sent by a hospital that treated the student, also came back positive for H1N1.

The population of Seligman changed as some students recovered and new ones got sick. All were out by May 22. Every case was relatively mild. “I neither needed a respirator nor grew a curly tail,” says Regenbogen. “I guess I should consider myself, and the other students, lucky to have had such an easy time with it.”