School officials bracing for probable H1N1 flu outbreak
August 17. 2009 2:25PM
As the dog days of summer loom, Brandon Valley school officials have already begun bracing the district for a flu season that’s expected to cause higher-than-normal staff and student absences.
Superintendent Dave Pappone informed the Brandon Valley Board of Education Aug. 10 that state health officials are anticipating the H1N1 flu virus will hit South Dakota schools hard in the coming months.
“We’re being told to expect a large number of kids contracting the disease this school year,” Pappone said. “And the guidance we’re being given is prevention, prevention, prevention.”
Seventeen cases of the H1N1 flu virus have been reported in South Dakota through July 17; 11 of those cases were reported in Minnehaha County.
“In South Dakota, more than half of our confirmed H1N1 flu cases have been younger than 20, and one of our two hospitalizations has been in that age group as well,” reports Governor Mike Rounds. “We know those case numbers will only increase as kids head back into classrooms and spend more time together.”
To keep abreast of the H1N1 flu virus, state health department officials are asking school districts to become “partners” in their vaccination program by encouraging preventative measures and providing a venue and school nursing staff to help administer the vaccine.
“What they’re asking from us is to facilitate the movement of kids,” Pappone said.
Barb Buhler, information officer for the South Dakota Department of Health, said the “partnership” is now in its infant stage, but Buhler anticipates good cooperation from school districts throughout the state.
“Schools with a school nursing staff will probably be involved as well as Department of Health and public sector nurses,” Buhler said.
The H1N1 flu vaccine will not be mandated, but Buhler encourages parents to have their child(ren) vaccinated.
“They key thing is this is voluntary,” Buhler stressed. “We certainly want to encourage parents to get their child vaccinated, but it’s not a requirement.”
Children between the ages of 5 and 18 are among those priority groups recommended for vaccinations when the H1N1 vaccine becomes available. Pregnant women, children 6 months to 4 years of age, new parents, non-elderly adults with medical conditions that increase the risk of complications, and health care workers and emergency services sector personnel will also be encouraged to receive the vaccine.
South Dakota is expected to start receiving vaccine on a phased basis as early as mid-October. The state will work with schools and community groups to organize vaccine clinics for students and other risk groups.
In addition to urging vaccinations for risk groups, Rounds said the state will continue to push basic public health measures, like good hygiene, that are very effective in preventing disease spread.
On Aug. 10, pandemic vaccine trials got underway with dozens of adults taking part in a number of fast-track flu vaccine trials.
The vaccine is designed to blunt the effect of a virus that, starting this fall, could infect 100 million people in the U.S. and cause 30,000 to 90,000 deaths based on scenarios drawn from past pandemic.
“People can expect to hear more about this vaccine as the trials just got underway,” Buhler said.
The virus, a new type of H1N1 strain, has been linked to 6,506 hospitalizations and 436 deaths in the U.S. – up from 353 two weeks ago – since it emerged in April from Mexico.
Symptoms of the H1N1 flu virus can include fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, vomiting, shortness of breath and diarrhea.
The U.S. government has ordered 195 million doses of pandemic flu vaccine in addition to the 120 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine. Both are expected to be available by the end of September.
Pappone anticipates the vaccine will be available to Brandon Valley students by late October.
The State Department of Health will also rely on school districts to help track the disease. Pappone said school districts are being asked to report absences to the state agency, who will closely monitor the numbers.
Buhler said preventative measures should be taken to help avoid contracting the H1N1 flu virus.
“Listen to your mother and all those things you’ve been told until you’re tired of it,” Buhler said. “We need to be watching, we need to be aware of what’s going on and we need to be washing our hands.”
Preventative measures include good hygiene, such as washing hands, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick.
“We all need to take personal responsibility to protect ourselves and our families with the simple steps our mothers taught us – washing our hands often and covering coughs and sneezes,” Gov. Rounds said. “More importantly, we need to keep our kids home from school when they’re sick and stay home from work if we’re sick.”
The State will not mandate school closure if there is an H1N1 flu virus outbreak. That decision, Pappone said, will be made at the local level.
“We’re being told to not automatically close school. The decision mostly depends on staff absences. If we don’t have enough teachers or substitutes, we would have to close the school,” Pappone said. “The strategy now is to try to stay operational.”
Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention no longer calls for closing schools in response to H1N1 cases. Instead, school officials should stress basic good hygiene and exclude students and staff with flu-like illnesses until at least 24 hours after fever symptoms have ended.
TO STAY INFORMED
To stay informed on the H1N1 flu virus, the vaccine and preventative measures, use one of the following sources:
• S.D. Department of Health Web site: doh.sd.gov/H1N1
• S.D. Department of Health: 1-800-592-1861
• Centers for Disease Control Web site: www.cdc.gov/H1N1
• Centers for Disease clinical information: 1-877-554-4625