Schools prepare for flu virus

Published 9:43 am Saturday, August 8, 2009

FRANKLIN—When the H1N1 influenza virus, also known as the swine flu, emerged last spring, health officials warned it could take a heavy toll across the globe. Despite being declared a pandemic, the virus hasn’t lived up to the hype — yet.

However, state health officials are warning that the combination of the regular cold and flu season and the beginning of the school year could be the perfect storm that the virus needs to spread.

“We’re not really sure what to expect,” said Phil Giaramita, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Heath, “It’s still a very new virus.”

Giaramita said that the seasonal flu usually affects the elderly and the very young, but that isn’t the case with the H1N1 virus, which has been affecting children and young adults at a disproportionately high rate.

Local school officials are taking steps to prevent the spread of the virus when schools open their doors to students next month.

“We have some proactive measures in place,” said Katherine Goff, a spokeswoman for Isle of Wight County schools. She said that the custodial staff has specific guidelines for cleaning and tissues and hand sanitizers have been placed in common areas in the schools.

“We’re encouraging parents, students and staff to follow preventative measures,” Goff said. The district has a pandemic flu plan, but it likely wouldn’t be activated for a few sick children. Officials will be monitoring the situation for “spikes in absenteeism,” which may lead to a more aggressive response.

“The schools will be working very closely with the Health Department,” Goff said.

Southampton County schools are also preparing for a possible H1N1 flu outbreak.

“We will continue to monitor the situation and take directions from the Centers for Disease Control, state Health Department and state Department of Education,” Superintendent Charles Turner wrote in a statement.

Turner said that the division will send guidelines and information to parents and will continue to follow existing procedures to make sure that the schools are clean and sanitized.

Giaramita recommends that children and school staff members stay out of school for a minimum of 5 to 7 days after flu symptoms first appear to reduce the likelihood of spreading the virus.

“Staying home if you’re sick is the most important thing,” Goff said.

As of July 30, there were 353 confirmed deaths in the United States blamed on the H1N1 flu virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While flu activity in Virginia has generally been decreasing, Giaramita said that it’s important for people to remain vigilant.

“We want people to be aware that the H1N1 virus is still here,” he said. He recommends people get their regular flu shot as well as the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available this fall.

Giaramita also said that parents should have an emergency childcare plan in place, in the event that their child catches the flu and has to be out of school for an extended period of time.

Officials from Franklin Public Schools could not be reached for comment Thursday on the district’s preparations for a possible H1N1 flu virus outbreak.

To prevent the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, health officials recommend that anyone suffering from flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, fatigue and body aches, should:

n Stay home and limit contact with other people.

n Cover their nose and mouth when sneezing and coughing.

n Wash their hands after coughing or sneezing with soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Health officials recommend that people who aren’t sick:

n Wash their hands frequently with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

n Limit contact with sick people.

n Avoid touching their eyes, nose or mouth.