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Schools gird for possible swine flu wave

Originally published: Aug. 13, 2008

Three days into the new school year, it's clear the H1N1 virus could become a big problem for local schools.

Folsom Cordova Unified began its school year Monday with the announcement that one of its students had been diagnosed with the virus a few days before. The ninth-grade girl is expected to recover and return to school next week.

Tuesday there were four confirmed cases of swine flu at Granite Bay High School, which also started classes Monday. By Wednesday that number had risen to seven. Seventeen other Granite Bay students are home with flu-like symptoms, although the H1N1 virus had been ruled out in some of the cases, said Principal Michael McGuire.

McGuire said at this point there still are fewer students out sick than during the usual flu season in the fall and winter.

But as thousands of children return to school from summer vacation, educators and public health officials can see the potential for those numbers to skyrocket and are planning how to respond.

Sacramento County Health Officer Glennah Trochet said so far, the virus has caused no more damage than the usual seasonal flu, with the county counting five deaths and 84 hospitalizations since the end of April.

But the differences between the swine flu and other viruses are what make health officials anxious. The H1N1 virus has been deadly to very young people and people ages 20 to 55, most with underlying medical conditions. The seasonal flu is more often deadly to the very young and elderly with underlying conditions.

"We don't want to make people hysterical," she said. "But we don't want to be unprepared if this virus becomes more virulent."

She said alcohol-based hand sanitizers are effective in killing germs associated with the virus. And many schools are stocking up.

Trochet also recommends that students and parents take the usual precautions: washing hands often and covering the mouth when coughing. She says anyone with flu-like symptoms should stay home. She also says that everyone should get the seasonal flu vaccine as soon as possible and the H1N1 vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

The swine flu vaccine is expected to be available in October.

"Now that schools are starting up again, kids will be in close contact with one another and that's one of the things that spreads a virus," Trochet said.

Three of the Granite Bay students were among 130 youngsters who had participated in a band camp at the school the previous week.

McGuire said that anyone who exhibits flu symptoms at Granite Bay High School will be isolated until they can be sent home. "We don't do 'wait and see' any more," he said. "We want them home, isolated from the general population."

This policy follows new guidelines released last week by the U.S. Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines offer districts the option to close schools where all or most students are at risk -- like those that serve the medically fragile or pregnant students -- if swine flu erupts.

Current federal policy is to keep schools open unless it becomes difficult to hold classes. Trochet said these guidelines could change if the virus becomes more virulent. She also said parents should have a plan in place if schools have to close for a week or two.

So far, the county has closed only one school because of swine flu. St. Mel School in Fair Oaks was closed for a week in April after a seventh-grader was diagnosed with the virus and a number of others became ill.

Since then, health officials have determined that most cases of the swine flu are mild and that schools should stay open.

Because of budget cuts and the loss of trained personnel, Trochet said staff members of the county health department are meeting with community organizations, schools, hospitals and other public entities to modify its plan for dealing with the H1N1 virus.

"We need more help," Trochet said. "We are working much more urgently with volunteers and partners."

Trochet and other members of the health department will meet with school administrators later this month at the county Office of Education to discuss plans to deal with a potential H1N1 virus outbreak.

SWINE FLU SYMPTOMS * Fever* Cough* Sore throat* Runny or stuffed nose* Body aches* Headache* Chills* Fatigue* Diarrhea* Vomiting

WHEN TO SEE THE DOCTOR* If you have underlying medical conditions* If you feel better, then worse again* If you have trouble breathing* If your fever goes away and then returns

TAKE PRECAUTIONS* Cover nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing* Wash hands with soap and water often * Use alcohol-based hand cleaners* Avoid contact with sick people* If you have a fever, stay home for 24 hours after it subsides to avoid infecting others

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sacramento County health department

TO LEARN MORE* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention www.flu.gov* To see a Sacramento County public health video update on the virus or to read swine flu information from the California Department of Public Health, go to www.sacbee.com/links

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090.

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