The subject line of Dean Jonathan Sanford’s email could have come out of an e.e. Cummings poem. It read:
“precautions and hyperbole”
However despite Sanford’s reassurance that there was no need to cancel classes, within the next 24 hours, all official weekend gatherings were shut down.
In the week and a half since Groundhog, the University of Dallas has seen a flu outbreak that is unprecedented in both its scale and in the measures that have been taken to stop its spread.
All campus events that would create large gatherings of people were cancelled or postponed, beginning with TGIT on Thursday night, followed by the Sadie Hawkins dance, English and business comps, and all weekend Masses.
Students began arriving at the clinic in far greater numbers than usual on Monday, Feb. 6.
According to Dr. Lora Rodriguez, the clinic ordinarily sees about 15 to 20 people a day.
This past week, they saw about 28 to 30 people each day.
“Starting at 9 a.m., there would be four to five people waiting, and it just continues like that throughout the rest of the day until 6 p.m.,” Rodriguez said.
Each day there were approximately 10 diagnosed cases of the flu and five or six diagnosed cases of other respiratory illnesses.
As of Friday Feb. 10, the clinic had diagnosed around 50 cases of influenza.
The sharp increase in appointments caused wait times to stretch and the clinic to become backed up.
Many of the student workers at the clinic, like junior Joseph Pecha, went in to offer extra help, despite not being scheduled.
Pecha worked at the clinic for an hour on Thursday afternoon after seeing how busy it had been during his regular shift at the clinic on Tuesday, which was one of the busiest days of the week.
“There were people there 20 minutes before the clinic even opened. There was already a line when I got there,” Pecha said. “It’s a little bit overwhelming at first because there’s so many people coming in; but as student workers you just settle into the rhythm. I’ve never seen it this busy, and I’ve been [working] here for two and a half years.”
Healthy visitors to the clinic, such as those going in for routine allergy shots, were asked to wait in nearby Campus Ministry.
In order to prevent the spread of the disease within the small and full waiting room, many students with symptoms were asked to leave their phone numbers and wait to be called. Their instructions went one step further: wait alone.
On Thursday evening, Dr. Laurette Dekat first advised the administration to cancel TGIT, stating in an email to the student body that large gatherings would cause the disease to spread.
Friday afternoon, after consulting with Dekat, Fr. Don Dvorak made the decision to cancel weekend Masses at the Church of the Incarnation.
Campus Ministry also cancelled its Sadie Hawkin’s dance.
“I have never made that recommendation before,” Dekat said. “In the 15 years I’ve been here I’ve never seen one [outbreak] this bad. That being said, this is still not an epidemic. We are trying to prevent it from becoming an epidemic.”
The intention behind cancelling masses was not only to stop the spread of influenza within the community, but also to prevent it from reaching more vulnerable populations like small children and the elderly.
“My feeling is if you’re sick, stay home,” Rev. Dvorak said. “Otherwise, you’re spreading it.”
However, despite a dispensation for missing their Sunday mass obligation, many students at the university attended Masses elsewhere in large populations, like the nearby Holy Trinity Seminary or Cistercian Abbey.
“I think if you’re healthy enough to walk around and not pass out [you] would still go to Mass either way,” Marian Henares, a business major who had her comps postponed, said. “I understand why Father Don said that, but at the same time I don’t think it would stop anyone. People are still going to go to Mass even though they’re dying.”
The heads of the English and business departments soon followed in the footsteps of Campus Ministry, again citing the concern about large gatherings.
Dr. Gregory Roper informed senior English majors in an email that their comps had been postponed on Friday afternoon. Senior business majors were not informed until the evening that they would not have comps the next day.
Many seniors would have had to reschedule their comps anyway due to illness, such as business majors Henares and Rachel Sullivan, both of whom had fallen victim to the maladies on campus in the past week.
“I didn’t want to take the exam while having a fever,” Sullivan said. “I’m just glad that we’re all in the same boat now, and we’re all still going to take it together; but we’re all going to be healthy when we take it now.”
Despite the senior’s relief at the postponements, other students still felt that they had received a mixed message about the severity of the outbreak.
According to Sanford, Student Body President Karmina Martinez and Joseph Kelly both sent out emails questioning whether classes should be cancelled after the cancellation of TGIT and the Student Government meeting Thursday night.
However, after contacting health services, Sanford learned that the outbreak was in the high normal range and that Dr. Dekat did not believe there was much to be gained from cancelling classes. Cancelling Mass was a greater priority because college students stand a better chance of fighting off the flu than other populations, who attend Mass at the Church of the Incarnation.
“It’s the at-risk population that would be the decisive difference [between cancelling Mass and cancelling class],” Sanford said. “If I had felt that the student population in any way was in danger, I would have cancelled classes.”
Over the weekend Sanford received several emails from students about the fact that classes were continuing.
President Thomas Keefe asked that Sanford encourage professors to give more time and help to students who were recovering from the flu.
On Sunday, Sanford sent out another email informing the student body of this.
“I want the student body to know that I care about them deeply, and I care about their well-being,” Sanford said.