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Closed Campus: A history of public health emergencies at CMU


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When Central Michigan University switched to online-only classes on March 11 and asked students not to return from spring break due to the coronavirus pandemic it began a unique chapter in the university's history.

However, coronavirus isn’t the first illness that has affected Central Michigan University's academic school year. In 1968, more than 1,000 cases of the flu were reported in CMU’s residence halls, where 6,000 beds were available for students.

The flu outbreak prompted President William Boyd to cancel classes for three weeks from Dec. 14, 1968 to Jan. 5, 1969. Students were advised to leave campus a week early for winter break and not return until Jan. 6. 

 For 1970 alumna Donna Whiteley, the situation was concerning. 

"I remember so many students getting sick all over campus," Whiteley said. "The health center was overcrowded and there was no place to send sick students. So the best solution was to send us all home early to get distance from each other."

As campus was closing, a snowstorm hit Mount Pleasant. Whiteley's travel home was longer and more challenging than usual due to the storm. 

"Most students were in a rush to get on the road ahead of the storm," Whiteley said. "I remember the parking lot at my apartment complex had not been plowed, so we were carrying our suitcases through the snow and across a big ditch to the car on the main road."

For other students, this schedule change came as a surprise. Jan Seidel and her roommates lived in Calkins Hall and were “shocked” after learning about the situation. 

A 1969 alumna, Seidel brought her roommate with her to Gladwin, Michigan to stay with her parents. Her roommate lived in the Chicago area, and stayed with Seidel’s family until she could drive home. 

Although the early arrival allowed Seidel to help her family decorate for Christmas, she spent the majority of her extra time studying. 

“Another thing that was different when I was there, (was) after Christmas vacation we went back to school to take our final exams,” Seidel said. “We had to take our stuff home to be prepared for final exams… so that was a harder semester.”

For 1969 alumnus, Al Bromund, the university's response to the situation was questionable. 

Bromund lived in the dorms after spending the first eight weeks of his fall semester student teaching. Although Bromund did not participate, he said his roommates tried to make him falsely claim he had the flu. Not long after this, he discovered that CMU canceled classes. 

“I didn’t know how many (cases) were real or not because my roommate said that, ‘People have got to start calling the health center and saying they’re sick and then they’ll shut it down,’” Bromund said. “I didn’t know if that was real or not. We couldn’t communicate with each other like you can today.”

Archivist Bryan Whitledge doesn't have information about the university administration or health services validated student reports. Instead, Whitledge believes the university trusted students self-reporting their symptoms. 

“Of course, this means some people could take advantage,” Whitledge said. “In a public health crisis, trusting people about their symptoms is what saves lives. I doubt that most people would take advantage during a public health scare.”

Bromund was disappointed when Boyd announced the decision to close the university. 

“I was a bit disappointed. I spent eight weeks off campus, and some of what I would consider the best times of my life were spent at CMU as a student,” Bromund said. “You just sort of got settled back in. I hadn’t even had enough time to connect with a lot of my friends who weren’t in the education department.”

Despite the 1,000 cases reported at CMU, other institutions like Michigan and Michigan State University were not affected as drastically as Central. 

Whitledge found the University of Michigan did not close campus due to the flu, but did offer vaccines. As for Michigan State University, the institution only had around five cases before their winter break. 

During the last week of October 1918, CMU faced a more dangerous flu crisis. This outbreak had a high mortality rate and caused the cancellation of classes from Nov. 1-18.

Out of 1,200 students, there were 110 cases of influenza reported by Nov. 8. Among those sick, Professor Lucy Sloan, a popular English instructor, and Clarence Neal of Coleman, a student of the World War I Student Army Training Corps program, died. 

In an effort to combat the illness, an emergency hospital was set in the school’s gymnasium with members of the Red Cross willing to help.  

Whitledge said the gymnasium was “akin” to the idea of Finch Fieldhouse or the Student Activity Center, just smaller. The gymnasium was filled with bed linens, nightgowns, towels, washcloths, face masks and other hospital items to treat the sick.

Through the history of 1918 and 1968, the university has learned and adapted to how to deal with health emergencies. Now, through the latest pandemic, the university is putting these plans to the test and will hopefully further learn for the future.

“I believe that CMU, like most other large organizations, thought about these situations in theory – organizations do a lot of ‘what if’ scenarios,” Whitledge said. “ Now, we are putting the ‘what if’ answers to the test. In some ways, by putting the emergency procedures to the test. We may find ways of doing things better.”

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, CMU is creating history, similar to what is read from 1918 and 1968. The actions of the University today will soon be looked at by individuals in the future.

“When we adapt to an extraordinary event like this, we are creating history,” Whitledge said. “That history will be everything from the press releases from the President’s Office, to the documented accounts of students that make it into the archives. Twenty years from now, we will be able to recount to the next generation of students with facts and feelings.”

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