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Penn State History Lesson: The 2009 Swine Flu Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has truly defined and shaped 2020. Nearly 950,000 people are dead worldwide and the virus has barely shown any signs of slowing down. Our lives have effectively turned into a weird mess of mask-wearing, social distancing, and mental health issues.

However, this isn’t the first time a global pandemic has hit Penn State. In 2009, the swine flu pandemic posed a brief yet serious threat to Happy Valley as well. Many of the ways the university responded to H1N1 in 2009 look eerily similar to 2020 coronavirus guidance. There are also some glaring differences.

To preface, the coronavirus and the swine flu are very different viruses. The coronavirus is far deadlier and more infectious than the swine flu was.

The CDC estimates fewer than 12,500 people died from the swine flu in the United States, while the nation’s coronavirus death toll just surpassed 200,000. The average person with the swine flu only transmitted the virus to 1.46 other people, while that number is likely in the 2-2.5 range for the coronavirus.

However, it’s still interesting to compare what it was like at Penn State then to how we’re all doing now.

Onward State was just a little baby blog back in 2009, but its founders were still covering the outbreak. A quick search of the site reveals a pretty hilarious “life comes at you fast” series of posts. Just like ebola and now the coronavirus, H1N1 didn’t seem like much of a threat…until it was.

Although social distancing seems like a novel idea, it turns out Penn State was encouraging it in 2009, too.

A university press release from May 1, 2009 showed a preliminary warning of H1N1 and encouraged students to practice “voluntary social distancing.” An Onward State article described it as “positively Orwellian,” which truly would not go over well today. Some of these guidelines included some pretty absurd language:

If attending social gatherings in the coming weeks, avoid activities where respiratory secretions can be shared. These activities include:

  • Sharing cigarettes or drinks;
  • Drinking games (such as beer pong, flip cup and keg stands); and
  • Hooking up.

Come on, guys. No sharing respiratory secretions or doing keg stands, please!

A different release from April, however, said that it’s “not necessary for the general public to use face masks.” They weren’t Masking Up or Packing Up back then, apparently.

In late June 2009, University Park reported its first two cases of the swine flu. Both students recovered and Penn State reiterated its flu prevention guidelines, which includes coughing into your elbow if tissues weren’t available. Some real advanced stuff.

That case count jumped to 10 by July but decreased later over the summer. Penn State then designed and release the most 2009-esque flyer you’ll ever see, which is still around campus in rare locations.


The university also started publishing monthly H1N1 updates to update the community on the state of the virus on campus. Eleven years later, we’ve made a large scientific leap and upgraded to twice-a-week coronavirus testing updates.

These updates vaguely reported the number of students with influenza-like illness (ILI) and encouraged isolation for those who were feeling sick. The September update said the university saw a tenfold increase in ILI in just a seven day period. Penn State told students to rest, recover, and not to see a doctor unless they were experiencing severe symptoms.

It was recommended, but not required, that sick students isolate in their rooms and have a friend bring them food or other supplies. They also temporarily relocated some students into single-living situations, similarly to how students are isolating in Eastview Terrace today.

By October, the university reported more than 900 ILIs among Penn State students and two hospitalizations. It took just under three weeks of students being back on campus to surpass that amount of coronavirus cases.

That same October, a vaccine was developed, and UHS became a distribution site. Penn State sent out notifications to “eligible” students about a vaccine and later recommended these students to receive the nasal vaccination before Thanksgiving break. This year, Penn State is sending all its students home for the semester over fall break, without any known testing or quarantine beforehand at this time.

The university originally received 1,000 doses of the nasal vaccine along with a small number of injectable doses. Students receiving the shots were those with conditions such as asthma and diabetes, as they weren’t eligible for the nasal version.

And that’s mostly all she wrote for the swine flu at Penn State. The football season went on as planned, no one got seriously sick, and life went back to normal.

The coronavirus has obviously been another story thus far, but it’s obviously a very different animal. Hopefully, the discussion will soon shift its focus from case counts to vaccine availability.

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About the Author

Ryan Parsons

Ryan is a redshirt senior majoring in business and journalism from "Philadelphia" and mostly writes about football nowadays. You can follow him on Twitter @rjparsons9 or say hi via email at [email protected]

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