2009-09-10 / Front Page

Island school officials prepare for impact of swine flu

By Dara Chadwick

As the nation braces for a potential outbreak of the H1N1 virus – commonly known as “swine flu” – Jamestown schools have taken a calm approach that relies on a simple concept: Common sense.

“If you have a fever, stay home,” said Renie Sullivan, certifi ed school nurse teacher for both the Lawn Avenue and Melrose schools. “And stay home until you’re fever free for 24 hours without Tylenol or Motrin.”

The “home until fever free for 24 hours” guideline comes directly from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Sullivan hopes it will help ease the burden for working parents who might have otherwise had to worry about finding several days’ worth of child care.

Parents, she said, will play an important role in helping to prevent the spread of H1N1, should it appear in Jamestown’s schools. A letter went out to parents of all Jamestown students this week, according to Jamestown Schools Superintendent Marcia Lukon, who added that she will participate in a weekly conference call for superintendents throughout the state. The department’s Web site will also be updated regularly and should an emergency occur, the schools will use the automated ConnectEd system to quickly get information to parents.

“If a child is going to be out sick, parents should call me at the school because we are tracking daily absences,” Sullivan said.

It isn’t necessary, however, to confirm that a child does, in fact, have the H1N1 virus.

Anyone who comes in to see the nurse with symptoms of ‘infl uenza-like illness’ – fever, sore throat, etc. – will be sent home until they are fever free for 24 hours, she said.

Dr. Joseph England of Jamestown Family Practice said that no H1N1 testing will be done, other than for people who develop complications and have to be hospitalized. Otherwise, he said, “fluids, rest and stay at home” is the best course of action for those who develop flu-like symptoms.

England added that the H1N1 virus itself is “not necessarily any more pathogenic or virulent than the seasonal flu.” In fact, he said, the mortality rate from swine flu is currently actually less than that of seasonal flu. It is making headlines, however, because “a lot of deaths have been children. Young people are dying and you usually don’t see that,” he said.

Approximately 30,000 people die each year from the seasonal flu virus, he said.

Sullivan said she expects the state to begin offering an H1N1 vaccine sometime in October.

“Schools are going to have clinics set up,” England said, adding that the vaccine will not be mandatory. “It will be offered to all children, but it’s still going to be the parent’s call.”

As for risks associated with the new H1N1 vaccine, England said the risk level is likely about the same as that of any other flu vaccine.

“These types of vaccines have been made every year for decades now,” he said.

Currently, vaccinations are recommended for pregnant women, those with certain illnesses, such as diabetes and asthma, people caring for babies under 6 months old, and children and young adults ages 6 months to 24 years, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health.

Preventing the spread of the flu virus involves many of the basic illness-prevention techniques we all learned back in kindergarten, Sullivan said. “Wash your hands, and cough into the crook of your elbow,” she said. “Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.”

Schools have been equipped with an alcohol gel hand sanitizing system, and students and staff are being encouraged to wash their hands frequently, she said.

Should the virus appear in Jamestown, schools will likely remain open, Sullivan said, adding that the decision to close schools will be made at the local level.

“For us to get a waiver not to make up those days, it’s going to have to be a significant case,” she said.

The only time the state recommends closing a school is if a signifi cant number of staff members become ill and there aren’t enough staff members available to run the school, England added.

Both Sullivan and England stressed that there is no need to panic about the H1N1 virus.

“We are concerned and I think everybody wants to do the right things,” England said. “But we’re not talking about the plague.”

Want to know more?

For the latest guidelines and information about the H1N1 virus and its spread, visit www.cdc.gov or www. flu.gov. Or, call the R.I. Dept. of Health’s Swine Influenza Line at 222-8022.

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