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Interviewed Students Said News Media Sensationalism Desensitized Them About the H1N1 Threat – Nevertheless, They Say They Are Paying More Attention to Prevention

Third Floor Crosswalk

A main intersection of corridors connecting the North, West and East Buildings of the Hunter campus.

The City University of New York Announced That Its Colleges Had Been Preparing During the Summer for the H1N1 Assault.

Is Hunter-CUNY Ready?

Google tallied approximately 134,929 stories about H1N1 on September 29. A few of the headlines were “Rochester schools alert parents of H1N1 flu,” “2 more H1N1 deaths reported,” and “WHO recommends H1N1 vaccines in 2010 flu season.” News coverage seemed nonstop and there were news reports of H1N1 cases on college campuses after their fall semesters began. The City University of New York had reported that campuses had been preparing during the summer for the disease. As classes started this fall semester, four WORD writers were assigned to try to assess what the City University of New York has been doing to prepare for this major health threat and how some students were reacting to the news.

“I was more worried about it in June when it was all over the news, especially when the outbreak occurred in the high school in Queens since I live so close,” said Yvette Ramirez, 20. Majoring in political science with a minor in romance languages at Hunter, the Bolivian, third-year student said that deaths were still occurring around the area where she resides in Elmhurst, Queens. “Unfortunately the news story has been saturated and it maybe no longer sells which is why it is no longer featured as much,” said Ramirez.

Other WORD writers reported similar experiences with their sources. That is, the students whom they interviewed said there had been so much initial reporting of doom and gloom that they were now, in a sense, sort of numbed to the caveats and warnings in recent weeks of the fall semester.

Ramirez, interviewed via private messaging online, said that the news media saturated people’s minds with H1N1 information so that they are no longer responsive to more news alerts even though people are still becoming ill. “I think as long as nothing massive happens like it did in Mexico City, where practically the whole city was shut down, people will lose interest. It’s unfortunate but true.”

Ramirez also cited what she considered a cause and effect situation. When news media outlets build up so much stimulation on topics, students and others will be informed but lots of people will just not pay as much attention because of the saturation. “I am not so worried about it that I will wear a mask or seriously take precaution. I think the best thing is to just always wash your hands and if possible use hand sanitizer,” she said.

Diana Méndez, a third-year student from Mexico, said, “I’m not too worried about it spreading so bad and I would protect myself by washing up more often and eating healthier to have a strong immune system.” Méndez, 20, also a Queens, New York, resident, said, “The media could do a better job in properly informing people of the risks and the fact that H1N1 hasn’t gone away and can come back stronger than ever.” Interviewed via email, she said, “The majority of the time, the media finds one story and sensationalizes it, bringing people to a panic.”

“It would have been better if they would’ve explained it better instead of building so much tension on the deaths of some people. I think it was all blown out of proportion,” said Alexis Díaz, 19, a communications major and political science minor at Baruch College in Manhattan. Díaz, a Washington Heights resident originally from the Dominican Republic, said, “How can the swine flu come from pigs and not one pig has it? Also, why have more people died after taking the vaccine than before?”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the influenza virus was referred to as “swine flu” because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in the new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs. However, further study showed that the virus has two genes from flu viruses that normally circulate in pigs in Europe and Asia and in bird and human genes.

Another point in Díaz’s misinformation about the media hype was that the vaccine won’t actually be ready until about the middle of October. [Editor’s Note: The New York City Health Department announced October 6 that the vaccine was being made available in the Big Apple. See ] “People were going to the hospital for anything, a sneeze, runny nose, regular cold symptoms. It took weeks for the media to really describe the symptoms in detail,” said Díaz, interviewed via email.

A student who attends York College/CUNY also seemed misinformed but repeated the same theme, that the media distracts from the reality of the situation. Yleana Torres, 20, a business major without a minor, said, “I know that the influenza comes from pigs and it’s like the seasonal normal flu but it’s much worse; there’s not really a cure for it.” A Dominican, residing in the Bronx, Torres, said she would nonetheless take the vaccine once it became available. She was interviewed via email.

Asked if she was worried about a potential resurgence of H1N1, Venus Velez, 19, an English major without a minor, said, “Not so much.” Velez is a Manhattan resident and Puerto Rican who, apart from being a member of the Puerto Rican Club at Hunter, is also the Undergraduate Student Government’s Cultural Affairs Commissioner. She was interviewed via private messaging online and she said this was her first semester in USG.

Asked if she was prepared in case of a massive resurgence of H1N1, Velez said, “Prepared as I’ll ever be. As for taking the vaccine, I’ll take it if the hospitals offer it because to my recollection the vaccine was in shortage and was held for elderly and children.”

In reality, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the vaccines would be offered as soon as they are ready but the people who will need it the most, those who tend to be effected the most, are those younger than 25 years of age. Those at a greater risk are obviously college students and younger people, thus a greater reason for CUNY schools to be preventive and reach out to their campus communities.

Velez said, “Hunter could, if it’s absolutely necessary, have information sessions on causes, preventions, and symptoms. Posters with this information could help.” Asked if she felt informed, Velez said, “No because I haven’t heard any information about it, maybe if I go to the Wellness Center but they’re not reaching out.” Ramirez, said, “I think they are doing an okay job.” Méndez said, “I think Hunter could do a better job letting people know what the real situation is, but other than that it’s been okay.” [Editor’s Note: Warning signs were posted several days after this interview with Ramirez.]

Meredith Halpern, Executive Director of Communications and Marketing at Hunter, and pretty much regarded as the Hunter administration’s main PR flack, was interviewed the second week of September via email by this reporter. Halpern said that as part of a campus-wide awareness plan, the College has placed “hand washing” and “cover your cough” posters around campus and on the monitors and has placed hand sanitizer dispensers around campus as well. This reporter did not see any hand sanitizer dispenser on Hunter grounds and saw very few, if any, posters several days after the initial contact with Halpern.

That same week this reporter replied to Halpern’s email informing her that students interviewed for this article felt like Hunter was not really reaching out to them with information and that they haven’t seen much change or improvement in the way in which public health was handled on campus. This reporter also included in the email that interviewed students had not seen any hand sanitizer dispensers and that even soap dispensers tended to be empty along with sanitary napkins.

Halpern was also asked in that same email her thoughts about what campus said and if she thought students would want to take the vaccine when they seem to be ill informed. Those questions were never answered. However, on September 23, this reporter saw that “cover your cough” posters had been placed outside of every single restroom on campus. On that same day, the Hunter Community received an email from Leonard Zinnanti, Chief Operating Officer of the College, about “Flu Prevention and Preparedness.” Zinnanti’s email started, “Many of you share the global concern about H1N1 flu”, and it ended with a list of “some basic precautions we can all take to limit the spread of flu.”

This reporter sent Halpern an email reminder that same afternoon, asking for her response to the previous follow-up questions. Halpern responded within minutes, saying she was not sure of the questions and asked this reporter to resend the query. She also wrote, “I’d like to point your attention to the email that was sent to the Hunter community earlier today.”

The CDC has a list of recommendations for colleges and universities. It encourages routine cleaning, and says schedules should be established for frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces like bathrooms, doorknobs, elevator buttons, and tables. It is said that disposable wipes should be provided so that commonly used surfaces can be wiped down by students before each use. More advice is provided on its website and the CDC also recommends that students, faculty members, food services staff, campus emergency managers and others should make decisions regarding preventive services.

Said Diaz, “Last semester at Baruch, when it started, they put Purell dispensers around the school, I didn’t notice anything else.”

Said Torres, “As a CUNY student I think that York College is very concerned with this issue, that they have installed hand sanitizer dispensers for student use in almost every part of the school.” Torres provided this reporter actual photographs of the dispensers in three different locations. “I think they did the right thing because it helps students remain germ free,” said Torres about York.

Hand Sanitizer

Composite picture. Images provided by Yleana Torres.

Andrea León can be reached at