In a time of extensive budget and program cuts, many universities were also hit hard by the financial costs of the H1N1 pandemic. Health departments generally provided H1N1 and seasonal influenza vaccine at no cost to institutions of higher education. However, colleges and universities bore the financial burden of other response efforts, such as communications campaigns, equipment and supplies for vaccine clinics, and costs associated with isolating ill students.
In 2009, the West Virginia Bureau of Public Health's Center for Threat Preparedness used CDC Public Health Emergency Response (PHER) Phase 3 funding to award H1N1-related grants to colleges and universities. The Center for Threat Preparedness did not have a history of providing colleges and universities with funding assistance for influenza prevention. The awards represented the first time that state public health had made this type of opportunity available for higher education, and much of this focus was due to the risk of H1N1 on campuses.
"We decided to fund colleges because we understood that there could be a problem with that population contracting and spreading the virus, given the close quarters they live in and classrooms they learn in," said Jerry Rhodes, Deputy Director of the Center for Threat Preparedness at the West Virginia Department of Health & Human Resources Bureau of Public Health.
The Center for Threat Preparedness administered the funding through the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission and the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education. Funding was awarded primarily for costs of on-campus vaccination clinics and outreach related to H1N1 prevention. Funding was applicable to prevention, but it could not be used to reimburse or fund patient care.
The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission awarded grants ranging from $12,500 to $25,000 to 15 institutions, via an application process. All colleges and universities were invited to apply for funding. Institutions applied in late November 2009, and funding was distributed early in 2010. Funding had to be applied to projects occurring between August 1, 2009 and July 30, 2010. The application process asked colleges and universities to describe their H1N1-related activities, the target population(s) served by the projects, outcomes and performance measures, an implementation plan and time frame, and how institutions of higher learning would collaborate with the local health department and other community organizations.
Awards allowed campuses to work closely with their local health departments on preventive efforts, organize vaccination clinics, and conduct communications and outreach campaigns. For instance, West Virginia University applied its $25,000 award to several activities, including: purchasing hand sanitizer for locations on campus; placing marketing and educational information in newspapers, town buses, and the football stadium; operating additional vaccination clinics; and offering meals to students isolated in on-campus housing. Potomac State College used a $19,400 award as reimbursement for purchasing equipment for on-campus vaccination clinics, providing hand sanitizer around campus, and offering meals to isolated students so that they did not expose other students in cafeteria areas.
Although each award was fairly small, "it did provide funding that [universities] may not have been willing to pull from established operational budgets," Rhodes said. To further enhance the benefits of the funding, the Center for Threat Preparedness encouraged colleges and universities to partner with their local health departments. The process of holding vaccination clinics provided numerous opportunities for these types of collaborations. "Most notably, we saw public health nurses go to the campuses to work in the clinics with the college health staff, and in at least one school, the student vaccine clinic was hosted at the local health department," Rhodes said.
While many colleges and universities had close partnerships with their state and local health departments, they still had to provide a significant amount of their own resources during the response. West Virginia's distribution of PHER funding to institutions of higher education gave campuses additional opportunities to create projects and activities that would prevent further illness and budget cutbacks in other areas.