When their 'worst fear' struck campus, this college's leaders moved quickly

Even with few resources, one college protected its students during an on-campus medical emergency

Fast thinking and mobilization helped Santa Clara University (SCU) manage a meningitis outbreak earlier this year, Susan Svrluga reports for the Washington Post's "Grade Point."

Early in the morning on Sunday, Jan. 31, an SCU health official was alerted that a student had been rushed to the hospital with a possible case of meningitis. As news spread, other students flooded the local emergency department, fearing that they had contracted the illness.

"It's everyone's worst fear in college health," says Joshua Sharfstein, associate dean at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Meningitis strikes very quickly. Someone looking well one day could be dead the next."

The panic came at a particularly inopportune time, as the university was set to hold a pre-game event with 10,000 attendees for the Super Bowl.

Officials did not yet know how serious the situation was, but as the student's condition got worse, SCU stepped up its response.

By the afternoon of Jan. 31, university officials opened the school's health clinic, which was normally closed on weekends, and directed students in the hospital emergency department back to campus. Following orders from county health officials, SCU health workers sought to determine any links among the students reporting symptoms and administered preventive antibiotics who may have been in close contact with the hospitalized student. By the end of the night, 100 students had visited the clinic.

Just before noon on Tuesday, Feb. 2, testing confirmed that the original student had meningococcal meningitis, serogroup B. By that afternoon, two more cases were suspected, and one of these was confirmed. Dozens more students awaited the results of their blood work and spinal taps.

The next day, VP Michael Hindery got confirmation from the state health department that his son had meningitis.

How SCU handled a medical crisis

University officials had completed emergency-management training over the summer that dealt with a hypothetical meningitis outbreak. But they lacked many basic resources needed to open a mass vaccination clinic.

"We did not have a clinic," says Chris Shay, assistant vice president for operations and the emergency operations center director. "We did not have professionals," to administer the vaccines. "We did not have non-professionals," for assisting medical professionals. "We did not have a vaccine."

In what turned out to be the most rapid mobilization of a vaccination clinic in the country, SCU opened the clinic on Thursday, Feb. 4. University officials set up the makeshift clinic in the basketball arena, adding Wi-Fi and an equipment charging station. SCU leaders consulted with health officials at University of California,Santa Barbara, which had previously devised 17 different models for a vaccination clinic.

SCU officials rushed to assemble volunteers, notify students and parents, and obtain a vaccine supply from the state. Federal funding designated for emergencies allowed SCU to administer the doses at no cost to students. When paperwork failed to come through in time to confirm the safety of the vaccine, officials found an alternate supply. 

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SCU health workers brought in nurses and supplies from local agencies, hospitals, and pharmacies, as well as the Red Cross. More than 100 volunteers recommended by county officials signed up to help, and more were put on a waiting list. Volunteers met for training at noon the next day and the clinic opened two hours later, with hundreds of students already lined up outside the door.  

The line was so long that some students waited hours for the vaccine—so volunteers brought them a meal. Before leaving the clinic, every student posed for a photo with the hashtag "Igottheshot" to share on social media. By 8:45 p.m., the clinic had administered 1,495 doses of the vaccine.

After delivering the last of nearly 5,000 doses, the makeshift clinic could shut down because follow-up doses could be easily administered during clinic appointments in the spring. All three students who had contracted meningitis recovered.

On Saturday, Feb. 6, the basketball arena was turned over to the Super Bowl celebration, but the SCU community had experienced enough excitement.

"I think everyone slept right through the game," Shay says. "The world was watching Santa Clara. But Santa Clara was sleeping" (Svrluga, " Grade Point ," Washington Post, 4/7).

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