School officials prep for swine flu (8/27/09)

Aug. 27, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The week before the school year begins, Williston administrators and school nurses are preparing for what may be a busy flu season. But this season could be different from past flu seasons. State and federal health officials believe the novel H1N1 virus, better known as swine flu, may rapidly spread through schools and communities.

District Principal Walter Nardelli said the schools are taking a proactive stance in combating the possible spread of swine flu. The goal is to keep the schools running throughout the year and avoid having to shut down, as Williston did in June during a swine flu outbreak.

“The only reason that occurred that time is because we had two days of school left to go,” Nardelli said. “We didn’t want it to spread like crazy in Williston, and it didn’t.”

The state is also taking the swine flu threat seriously. Patsy Kelso, the state’s epidemiologist with the Vermont Department of Health, said Vermont is looking into setting up clinics in schools to inoculate students once a vaccine is ready.

The H1N1 virus originated in Mexico early this year and spread across the globe. Worldwide, more than 1,400 people have died from swine flu. There have been no deaths reported from the swine flu in Vermont, but there have been 65 confirmed cases and potentially many more within the state since last spring, Kelso said. The World Health Organization has already labeled the H1N1 virus a global pandemic.

A report released this week by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology said a swine flu outbreak this fall could kill between 30,000 and 90,000 people; approximately 40,000 people die each year in the United States from the seasonal flu.

While the flu virus causes symptoms similar to the common seasonal flu, there is one potentially dangerous difference: “Since it’s a new virus, there’s no immunity to it yet,” Kelso said.

Currently, the federal government is preparing an H1N1 vaccination that will be available to individuals deemed most at risk from the flu, including school-aged children, pregnant women and senior citizens. Kelso said the vaccine is expected to be ready by mid-October, which might be too late to stop the spread of the flu.

A vaccine for the common seasonal flu is ready and school-aged students should see about getting a flu shot before school starts, Kelso said.

She said it’s possible swine flu could spread quickly when students return to school next week.

“The virus didn’t completely go away in the summer like the (seasonal) flu usually does,” Kelso said.

In June, swine flu caused problems within the Williston School District. A student at Allen Brook School contracted the virus after visiting friends out of state. Back in Williston, the student fell ill, as did many of his classmates. Within a week, swine flu had spread throughout Allen Brook and Williston Central schools. The administration decided to close the schools two days before the end of the 2008-2009 school year.

Nardelli said Williston will follow recommendations released last week by the Vermont Department of Health and Department of Education. The joint report suggests school nurses should wear masks when evaluating potentially infected children and students should be urged to stay home with any flu-like symptoms. School awards for perfect attendance should also be suspended for the year to discourage sick children from attending school, the report noted.

Nardelli said he liked the ideas in the report.

School nurses are expected to meet with every class in Williston within the first few weeks of school, Nardelli said. The nurses will review with students proper hygiene tips that help slow the spread of the flu, like washing hands after sneezing and covering one’s mouth when coughing.

“The usual precautions definitely will apply,” Nardelli said.

As for shutting schools down during a swine flu outbreak, the state recommends not doing so unless it’s a severe enough outbreak to impede the student body’s daily activities. Nardelli said he’ll meet with school officials to determine at what point administrators should consider closing the school in the face of a major outbreak.

“We certainly don’t want it to happen again,” he said.