This report was written by Neighborlogs intern Lucas Anderson
Health officials say it is only a matter of time before Seattle’s elementary schools face outbreaks of illness from the H1N1 flu virus. Last year’s outbreaks that closed multiple Seattle schools including Capitol Hill’s Stevens Elementary are still on the minds of Public School officials as the new school year begins. This school year, according to Seattle Public School’s David Tucker, prevention is the priority.
Over the summer, King County Public Health (KCPH), in coordination with the Center for Disease Control, finalized a plan continuing and strengthening current school programs that are already in place, such as weekly absentee rate reports, every-day monitoring, and extra attention for at risk students that are “medically fragile.” Tucker said that families are the first line of defense. “If a child is sick, then the parents need to make sure the child stays home,” said Tucker.
Cases of H1N1 have been reported in the area through summer but officials are bracing for an increase as school begins. King County Health spokesperson Hilary Karasz said symptoms for those already sickened by the virus appear to be mild and on the scale of the typical seasonal flu. The big difference with H1N1, though, is the level of immunity in the community. Because it’s a new virus, fewer of us have developed immunities to it and so, Karasz explained, more of us are going to get it. “It’s a strong reminder to wash our hands and stay home if we’re feeling sick,” Karasz said.
When school began last week, schools sent home notes to parents informing them of the risks and things to look out for. Part of a CDC provided “Toolkit” for H1N1, it also included fact sheets for parents, teachers, students, and an FAQ. Also, the county health department recommended that a sick note from a doctor for teachers or students with flu-like symptoms not be required for students or staff to allow them to be able to remain at home until they are healthy.
As for school closures this year, Tucker reiterated the CDC guidance of “keeping schools open to the greatest extent possible.” He added that the process will be different than last year, with closures at the bottom of the check list.
Seattle’s school plan includes two different strategies for approaching an outbreak depending on the severity compared to last spring.
For same severity as Spring 2009:
- Stay home when sick
- Separate ill students and staff until they can be sent home
- Hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette
- More frequent cleaning using regular products
- Early treatment for high risk students and staff
- Consider selective school dismissal
For increased severity compared to Spring 2009:
- Active screening
- High-risk students and staff stay home
- Students with ill household members stay home
- Increase distance between people at schools
- Extend the period ill persons stay home
- School dismissals
Tucker added that if any closures are needed, they are done in conjunction with KCPH, and do not rest solely on SPS.
Thanks to Lucas and Capitol Hill Seattle for this post.