Schools open with plans in place to combat H1N1 flu threat
The H1N1 influenza flu virus first made headlines late in the winter of 2009 with cases being diagnosed in the United States and Mexico. The Centers for Disease Control, state and local county health departments and the NYS Education Department began a joint effort to educate the public about the disease and how to reduce exposure to it. The awareness campaign is especially important to public schools, where the threat to children and adults is quite high.
Livingston County Public Health Director Joan Ellison has been meeting with school superintendents and others over the past several months to track the latest information coming from the CDC about H1N1, to develop plans for reducing exposure and spread of the flu and to prepare a response plan to any potential cases among students and/or staff.
Health care professionals expect that H1N1 will resurface this fall as children and adults return to the close environment of the classroom and it is making headlines in the media.
Ellison said H1N1 flu is different from season flu in that it targets young people and children, where mitigation is difficult because of the close contact and sharing of objects that could potentially spread the virus. According to the CDC, H1N1 can survive on environmental surfaces and can infect a person for two to eight hours after being deposited on the surface.
Ellison said the emphasis is on how to protect others and ourselves from exposure to the flu through routine hand washing, cleaning and cough etiquette. The idea is to hold off the spread of the illness at least until the vaccine becomes available. The best way to do that is through education, she added.
"The reason there is so much hype is because itís new and we donít know if it will mutate or how it will behave. We donít expect to have a vaccine for it until mid-October," Ellison explained.
Staff returned to work at Avon Central School and Superintendent of Schools Bruce Amey said school nurses presented information to them about good hygiene and scrupulous hand washing. Hand sanitizers have been installed in all classrooms, Amey said.
Teachers are being encouraged to use their webpages as instructional tools so that students who are sick and out of school can access some class work, as much as they feel up to.
Cal-Mum staff returned to school on Tuesday, September 8 and Superintendent David V. Dinolfo said H1N1 was on the agenda for his opening day presentation.
"The staff was educated on the most recent updates from the LCHD, the CDC and NYSED about H1N1 and what our response needs to be," Dinolfo explained.
All schools are recognizing the importance of promoting continuous interventions that will hopefully reduce the spread of the flu. It will be important for school staff to recognize the symptoms of the illness in children and report those students to the health office where they will be isolated from others. Students and staff should practice routine hand washing several times a day and surfaces should be wiped with an appropriate disinfectant, especially surfaces that frequently touched, such as computer keyboards and mice, desks, etc. Most schools began placing antibacterial hand cleansers and provided tissues in and around school buildings last spring when H1N1 first surfaced.
"The spread of the virus can be reduced by ensuring that school facilities are cleaned regularly and effectively," is the recommendation from NYSED.
Reporting of illnesses is vital to the monitoring of the spread and severity of the illness. Schools must diligent in their reporting of any student or staff member who exhibits flu-like symptoms. Ellison said schools must also enforce the most up to date recommendation regarding the return to school after a person has exhibited flu symptoms.
"If you are ill, stay home. The CDC recommends that you may return to school or work after you have been free of an elevated temperature for 24 hours, without the use of fever reducing medication," Ellison explained.
Ellison says a vaccine is expected to become available this fall but will not be plentiful at first. Clinics will be established throughout the county and may include satellite locations in schools. Target populations, those who are most at risk of contracting the flu, will be vaccinated first.
Those groups include:
The LCHD has for some time held vaccine clinics in schools for the seasonal flu and may collaborate with local schools around the county to establish clinics for H1N1 vaccination when it becomes available.
Dinolfo said that Cal-Mum would partner with the health department when that time comes.
Ellison said the health department and school superintendents would continue meeting as the school year progresses to maintain vigilance in the containment of H1N1 influenza. Schools will continue their efforts to educate staff, students, parents and community members on the latest information about the disease through several modes of communication. Local school district websites will be the best method for receiving the latest information. Parents and community members are encouraged to stay informed as new information is released. And lastly, people should be concerned about the upcoming seasonal flu and be vaccinated for that as well. The same general hygiene practices are recommended for reducing the spread of season flu. The season flu vaccine is available now and is a separate vaccination from the H1N1 vaccine.
Symptoms of H1N1 influenza: Fever, cough, runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Symptoms may include diarrhea and vomiting.