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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

‘Gainesville Plague’: Flu symptoms widespread on campus

The increase in cases follows a near flu-free year during the COVID-19 pandemic

Coughs, runny noses and sore throats are now common symptoms for many UF students. After a decrease of flu cases in 2020, students are once again catching the “Gainesville Plague” three months into the semester. 

Cold and flu season reaches UF every year and is often referred to as the “Gainesville Plague,” said Ronald Berry, director of the Student Health Care Center. Students seem to use the label because the illness spreads quickly, leaving many sick in a short span of time, he said.

However, last year there were fewer flu cases worldwide because of precautions taken to protect against COVID-19. The number of flu cases last flu season was so small Berry said the SHCC didn’t keep track of how many there were.

Flu cases are rising now, Berry said, partly because of a lack of mandated precautions at UF, such as mask wearing and social distancing. 

Jack Nelson, a 20-year-old UF graphic design junior, said he’s noticed students in his graphic design program falling ill. In the last three weeks, the attendance in Nelson’s class dropped to almost half, he said.

He said he has been sick for about a month, since the day of the first UF football game, with a sore throat and congestion.

“Since then I’ve had those same symptoms, they’ve gotten a little worse here and there,” Nelson said. “It feels like I’m basically just on cruise control.”

In September, 1,440 students with symptoms were seen at UF’s infection units, which were created when COVID-19 first hit, Berry said. The unit performed 545 COVID-19 tests: 5% came back positive. Of all strep tests, 16% were positive, and of all flu tests, just 1% were positive. Most of the students probably have colds, Berry said.

UF set up several infection units across campus to reduce spread as flu season began, and the Student Health Care Center added appointment slots for flu shots. More students have been visiting the units this past month, Berry said. 

To stay safe as illnesses spread, Berry said students should continue to wear masks and social distance. With a rapid flu test, students can receive flu medicine within the first couple of days of infection for a faster recovery. Berry also recommends students get their flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine.

“We recommend getting the flu shot early in the flu season, which is the fall,” Berry said. “That covers you into the spring.”

It’s possible the flu could get worse, he said. Flu cases in Gainesville usually peak in January when students return to campus from Winter break because it spreads more easily in cold weather

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In Fall 2019, there were 191 flu cases through December. January 2020 also saw 191 cases, followed by another 100 total cases in February and March. During that flu season, 60% of all cases were in the Spring semester, he said. 

But right now, students like Jeremy Rutenberg, a 21-year-old UF mechanical engineering junior, said he has friends who’ve been sick for the past two weeks with cold symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing and headaches. However, he isn’t worried about getting sick.

“I stay away from people who are sick, definitely wash my hands regularly,” Rutenberg said.

Kyle Giovanniello, a 19-year-old UF aerospace engineering sophomore, said he’s worried about the Gainesville Plague continuing to spread, even though he first heard of it this semester. Because his three roommates got sick with it quickly, he thinks it’s highly contagious.

“But it doesn’t seem like it’s that bad, so I’m not too worried about the severity of it,” Giovanniello said.

Jacob Hutchinson, a 21-year old UF instrumental performance senior, said he isn’t worried about the sickness either. He said some might think the spread is worse than it is because people are more aware of symptoms with the COVID-19 pandemic.  For example, more people could be self-quarantining when they have symptoms.

“I don’t think that I would avoid going out or anything for the Gainesville Plague alone,” Hutchinson said. 

Contact J.P. Oprison at Follow him on Twitter @JOprison.

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J.P. Oprison

JP is a fourth-year journalism major with a minor in history. He is currently the health reporter for The Alligator, focusing on how the pandemic is affecting Alachua County and the thousands of students in Gainesville. In his free time, JP likes to exercise at the gym and relax on the beach.

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