Schools Prepare For Swine Flu

County Systems, Universities Have Their Game Plans For Dealing With Sick Students

August 15, 2009|By Childs Walker and Liz Bowie | Childs Walker and Liz Bowie,

As teachers fuss over lesson plans and college freshmen fret over meeting their roommates, K-12 and university administrators are preparing to deal with another, less familiar back-to-school worry: swine flu.

Though local public school systems and universities survived last spring's initial spread of the H1N1 virus with few interruptions, fears that a mutated flu could strike with renewed vigor have them formulating plans to deal with outbreaks. The message across these institutions is similar: Don't expect to close because of swine flu, but be ready to function while caring for numerous sick students.

Whether they are kindergartners going to school for the first time or college seniors, students will encounter lots of signs telling them to take H1N1 seriously. Hand sanitizer and tissues will be widely available. And because those ages 6 months to 24 years old are especially susceptible to contracting H1N1, mass vaccinations are expected.

Last May, state health officials closed half a dozen schools when each had at least one suspected case of swine flu, but they say the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have more experience with the virus and are taking a far different approach in guiding local school systems.

"It will be highly unlikely that schools will be closed due to this virus," said Frances Phillips, deputy secretary for public health services at the state health department. "The new guidance has a different tone to it. The inclination and the bias is to keep schools open and yet keep children safe."

Local school systems will emphasize hand-washing and mouth-covering, and say they're ready for vaccinations on a scale not seen since polio in the 1950s.

At the University of Maryland, College Park, administrators are preparing to vaccinate 2,000 students on Oct. 15. They'll be giving out vaccine for seasonal flu, but they regard the exercise as a trial run for dispensing H1N1 vaccine (expected later in the fall) widely and quickly.

"We'll be getting people vaccinated, but we'll also be testing our own ability to deliver health services somewhere other than the health center," Linda Clement, vice president for student affairs, said of the plan to vaccinate students at the school's old basketball gym. Clement hopes such events will steer students toward preventive measures because closing a campus with more than 11,000 residents would be difficult.

"We're seeking to avoid it, and we're not expecting it," she said of suspending classes.

Administrators at the Johns Hopkins University have met weekly over the summer to discuss H1N1 preparations. They recently sent an e-mail to all students outlining prevention steps but also warning that every student should have a plan to get home should classes be suspended.

That seems improbable given that the virus has behaved similarly to mundane seasonal flu, said Hopkins spokesman Dennis O'Shea. "Our school of public health has been modeling outbreaks," he said. "And they believe that even if a significant number of students and faculty get sick, it's not likely that a lot of them will get sick at the same time. So we're assuming that we would not close unless something changes with the virus."

Swine flu might spread more efficiently than the seasonal variety, but it isn't likely to cause more severe symptoms this fall, said Andrew Pekosz, a professor of immunology at Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health.

"It seems to be lacking the gene sequences that would tell us it has a chance to become more deadly," Pekosz said, while cautioning that anything is possible. "If there is such a thing as the ideal pandemic, this is something we'd much rather deal with than, say, the 1918 influenza. Everything we know about controlling the seasonal flu really does apply to this virus."

In the state's public school systems, officials want to limit the virus' spread, particularly during the first weeks of school before a vaccine is ready.

In some schools, particularly those where small children can spread germs on desks and doorknobs, staff will wipe down surfaces and tell students to sneeze into their elbows rather than their hands. "Our principals are ready to hammer that home on the first day of school," said Bob Mosier, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County public schools.

Most important, Phillips said, is that parents not send children to school with flu symptoms, including fevers and sore throats. The state Health Department has also advised schools to set aside rooms where sick children can be isolated while waiting to be picked up from school.

Parents shouldn't send their children back to school until their fevers have been gone for 24 hours without the use of medication. While that might seem a simple directive, it could have wide effects on businesses, Phillips said. "Employers need to understand it is in their best interest to have a liberal leave policy" for parents, she said.

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