South Florida schools ready to deal with swine flu

(MIAMI HERALD)   South Florida schools say they’re ready to carry out the new swine-flu-fighting recommendations issued Friday by federal health officials, including using school health clinics to give vaccinations by mid-October and allowing sick kids to return to school 24 hours after their fever has passed.

Federal health officials say the H1N1 flu continues to spread during warm summer weather, and is likely to spread even faster when schools open in the fall. But they recommended against closing schools, even with small numbers of swine flu cases, unless so many students or teachers are sick that they cannot function.

“We will have a resurgence of H1N1 flu affecting young, seemingly healthy students,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education. “We have to put the safety of our students first. But we have to balance that against the harm of lost learning, lost wages and unsupervised kids.”

Schools open Aug. 24 in Miami-Dade and Broward.

“I think we got very clear direction,” said Deborah Montilla, head of student services for Miami-Dade Public Schools, who noted that she and her staff would meet with principals next week to review plans. “I think it’s clear the secretary wants us to do everything possible to take precautions and still keep schools open. We will follow the recommendations.”

Leah Kelly, associate superintendent for student support services for Broward schools, said the system has had epidemic plans at least the since the avian flu epidemic of 1997.

“We will look at the new guidelines and update ours again,” she said.

Broward schools, anticipating the CDC call for local schools to update the ways they communicate flu information to parents, already have established the ability to send automated pre-recorded messages, e-mails or regular phone calls to individual parents, all parents at once, or the parent at one school, Kelly said.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended that children who are ill be permitted to return to school 24 hours after their fever is gone, instead of waiting seven days, which was the CDC recommendation when swine flu began last spring.

“We know a lot more about it now,” Frieden said. “This is more practical, and it’s more likely to be done.”

Bernie Kemp, president of the Broward Council of PTAs, had doubts about the quicker return.

“I’m not a doctor, but I think they’ll have lots of work convincing parents of that. We worry about our children.”

But he had no problem with trying to keep schools open. “It depends on how serious a level of threat is to the school. If it’s safe, even though there may be a case or two, I support keeping schools open.”

Federal officials said they hope school children will get a total of three flu shots — one for regular seasonal flu and two for swine flu. Regular flu shots will be available in a few weeks. Swine flu shots should arrive in mid-Octobers. Students who get one shot then would need a second swine flu shot two weeks later, and then would need three more weeks to develop full immunity.

Here’s a list of CDC recommendations for schools assuming that swine flu does not become more virulent by fall:

Ask students and staff to stay home if they’re sick.

Ask schools to send apparently ill children to separate rooms until they can be sent home.

Emphasize hand washing and covering coughs.

Routinely clean school surfaces often touched such as door knows, railings and so on.

Sending high-risk students such as those with asthma, diabetes or who are pregnant to get medical help immediately if they appear ill.

Consider closing schools with clusters of swine flu cases if they have high-risk students such as those with asthma or who are pregnant.

The CDC also issued guidelines for schools in case the swine flu turns more virulent. They include actively screening students and staff for symptoms as they arrive each day, asking students with ill household members to stay home, increasing space between students in classrooms and others.

“We want to emphasize local decision-making,” said Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security. “We want to give local officials the tools they need to make the decisions.”

So far there have been 6,506 hospitalizations for swine flu in the U.S. and 436 deaths. Officials estimate more than a million people have been infected with the flu in the United States. Florida has 41 deaths, Miami-Dade has 15 deaths and five have died in Broward.

Swine flu continues to grow in South America, where it is winter, but the World Health Organization says so far it is showing no signs of mutating into a more virulent strain.

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