Fear and flu emptying classrooms

May 20, 2009 10:03:10 PM PDT
The flu outbreak is shutting down more schools.More than three dozen schools are now closed in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey due to flu-like symptoms in students.

Officials in Levittown announced Wednesday that all 10 schools is the district will be closed on Thursday. In addition, all district activities will be canceled except playoff games. On Thursday and over the holiday weekend, the custodial staff will be disinfecting the schools in an effort to prevent further spread of the flu.

Also, officials announced that PS 130 and PS 242, both in Queens, will also close Thursday.

So how does the Department of Education decide whether or not to close a school? The health commissioner evaluates a range of factors in considering whether it makes sense to recommend closing a school.

The DOE looks for "clusters" of illness and determines whether closing a school could help to reduce the spread of infection. The number of students who are absent is not a trigger to recommend closing a school. The DOE does, however, look for spikes in the number of absent students at a school. Most importantly, officials look at the number of students who are visiting the nurse's office and keep track of the number of students with fevers over 100.4 degrees and other influenza symptom such as a sore throat or cough. A high absentee rate alone does not mean a school should close. If all the children who are sick are already home and the students in school are healthy, closing will not reduce the transmission of infection.

The DOE also take into account the severity of H1N1 flu in the community. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene monitors all New York City emergency rooms and intensive care units to evaluate the severity of swine flu infections in the community.

The Health Department visits many schools each day and makes recommendations to the Schools Chancellor about how to handle individual situations.

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  • INTERACTIVE MAP: Schools closed by flu concerns

  • The Health Department and the Department of Education are working to monitor flu-like illness in New York City schools. Officials said some schools will experience temporary closures in the coming days and weeks. Rather than using a simple rule to close schools, the Health Department is carefully evaluating the circumstances at each one. High absenteeism, by itself, is not a basis for closure.

    The Health Department said it is seeing increased levels of influenza in many parts of New York City.

    "We know that the new H1N1 (swine origin) virus is present in New York City, and all evidence suggests that it is causing a large proportion of the city's current flu cases. Except in special circumstances, the Health Department does not test people with flu to determine which type they have," the department said in a written statement.

    The city has started putting daily attendance rates at its 1,500 public schools online amid concern about the spread of swine flu.

    The data releases began Wednesday. Wednesday's attendance ranged as low as 39 percent at one school, but education officials caution that high absenteeism doesn't necessarily signal a flu outbreak.

    Mayor Michael Bloomberg says many parents are keeping their children home simply out of fear of the virus.

    Nonetheless, more than half the city's schools had 90 percent or more of their students in class Wednesday.

    Symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Some people have reported diarrhea and vomiting as well. Anyone experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, should seek health care and treatment. The best way to prevent additional cases of flu in schools is to stay home when sick, cover your mouth when coughing and sneezing, and wash hands frequently. For those who are ill, the recommendation is to stay home until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours.

    Eating pork or pork products cannot spread H1N1 flu.

    The most effective way to lower the risk of spreading the flu is for anyone with a fever, cough or sore throat to stay home. The Health Department urges everyone to continue taking these basic precautionary steps:

  • Cover your mouth when you cough, either with your sleeve or a tissue or handkerchief.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective.
  • Try to avoid household or other close contact with sick people. If you are sick with a fever, cough or sore throat, stay home for at least 24 hours after all of your symptoms are gone.
  • Stay away from clinics and hospitals unless you have severe symptoms, and notify your doctor or the clinic before you arrive, or as soon as you arrive, so that you can be appropriately isolated from others.

    Influenza can evolve in unpredictable ways; officials said it is impossible to know whether this outbreak will dwindle, remain the same, or surge in coming weeks, and whether the illness will remain mild. Some severe cases may occur, including in people with underlying risk factors, such as young children, the elderly, and people with chronic medical conditions. The Health Department is watching closely for signs of increased virulence.




    For facts about influenza, and more information about swine flu, please visit the Health Department and CDC websites. Some specific resources:

    From New York City Health Department

    Facts about flu

    From Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

    General information about swine flu

    Swine Flu Case Definitions

    Swine Flu Infection Control and Patient Care

    Preventing the Flu