Amid heightened concerns about sickness during the pandemic, a common cold outbreak has spread across campus, afflicting numerous students and increasing the workload of the Health Center. The upper respiratory virus, informally called the “Amherst flu” or “Amherst plague,” does not pose the same health risk as Covid-19 but has several overlapping symptoms. As a result, students have refrained from seeking healthcare services from the college in fear of being quarantined. To deter the spread of viral infections as flu season begins, the college is mandating that all students receive a flu vaccination by Nov. 1.
A poll conducted recently in the campus-wide GroupMe chat revealed that 161 out of the 319 respondents (just over half) believed that they had caught the “Amherst cold.” Usual symptoms of influenza include fever, body aches, cough, fatigue, headache, congestion and sore throat. All of these are also associated with Covid, which frequently comes with the additional symptoms of loss of taste or smell, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.
For this reason, students that seek out care from the Health Center care will be isolated, Director of Health Services Emily Jones told The Student. “Students who have symptoms that could be influenza or Covid could be monitored in quarantine housing until Covid has been ruled out by testing when clinically indicated by history and exam. This often is only for a few hours — but occasionally can be overnight.”
Due to the threat of quarantine, students have refrained from making appointments with the Health Center and reporting Covid-like symptoms.
Students who have fallen ill detail significant burdens to their physical and mental health. Callie DeLalio ’24 experienced physically taxing symptoms from catching the cold, but felt hesitant to reach out to the Health Center given the college’s Covid protocols.
“I started out with a runny nose, and then it progressed to a cough that lingered for about a week,” she relayed. “I considered going to the Health Center, but I wasn't sure if that was a good idea, given that multiple friends of mine had been quarantined there for the same cold that I had. Some of the symptoms of my cold were similar to Covid, so I didn't want to wind up spending the night in the Health Center when I could just go to CVS and take cold medicine.”
DeLalio asserted that the Health Center should ensure that students feel comfortable going there rather than threatening them with isolation, which only instills a sense of wariness in those who are sick. “I think that they have to trust that the two negative tests we get each week from the testing protocol are sufficient,” she said. “The Health Center should be focused on helping students feel better as opposed to detecting Covid and quarantining people.”
Unlike DeLalio, Will Dientsfry ’24 did utilize the Health Center, which he described as a positive experience: “The Health Center was very helpful — they did their job to the best extent that they could. They're really busy, so I can see why it can be stressful for them, but they got me in that day after I called in the morning, and I got tested for just about everything, including Covid-19. I had to wait for the test to come back, so that was a little time consuming, but that's not on them [the Health Center], that's on the outside labs.”
Dientsfry posited that the cold has spread so easily because of the college’s small size, which students usually view as a positive attribute. “Since we're in such a full bubble, if one person gets something, we all get it,” he said “Most of my friends have gotten sick.”
Claire Callon ’25 has also had ongoing struggles with the “Amherst cold.” “It’s been three weeks and I’ve basically woken up with a new flu symptom everyday — sore throat, cough, congestion, headache, etc.,” she said. Callon continued to share that many of her friends have the same symptoms: “I think everyone around me has been sick or is sick right now. This flu is definitely going around.”
According to Jones, the best way to deter the spread of upper respiratory infections is by adhering to the public health measures set forth for Covid — masking, distancing and hand-washing. Jones also noted that Health Services continues to offer students the opportunity to receive the flu vaccine annually. “We feel strongly that it is in the best interest of our community to have students vaccinated against influenza,” Jones expressed.
This year, students are mandated to get the flu vaccine before Nov. 1. The college has partnered with Walgreens Pharmacy to administer the shots in the Middleton Gym of the Alumni Gymnasium. Students may sign up to receive the vaccine on one of four days during the semester: Thursday, Sept. 30; Friday, Oct. 1; Wednesday, Oct. 13; and Thursday, Oct. 14.
Director of New Student Programs Marie Lalor reported, “As of today, [Oct. 4,] we have almost 1200 students registered for the four days of on-campus flu clinics. The first two days of the clinic resulted in 650 vaccinations!” Lalor also communicated that another email about flu vaccination registration will be sent following Fall Break containing information about the Oct. 13 and 14 vaccination clinics.
“We want to use all of the public health measures at our disposal to decrease the spread of respiratory illnesses,” said Jones. “Decreasing the cases of influenza will decrease the need for additional Covid evaluations and quarantines.”