Local News

State Health director urges schools to prepare for H1N1

Posted August 25, 2009 4:50 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2009 12:00 a.m. EDT

— As students on traditional-year calendars returned to schools on Tuesday, State Health Director Dr. Jeffrey Engel encouraged school officials to focus on keeping the H1N1 virus – also known as the swine flu – from spreading.

Officials say the swine flu pandemic could begin hitting North Carolina as early as next week while students resume classes.

“We are not recommending any special shut down, pressure washing or any super disinfectant,” Engel said during a news conference. “Routine cleaning is all that is necessary.”

Engel said the state is taking a three-point approach to combating the virus — good hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and the isolation of students who have flu-like symptoms.

Students who show flu-like symptoms should be excluded from classrooms and moved to a designated isolation room, if available, Engel said.

The main transmission of H1N1 has been person-to-person contact.

Engel estimated Tuesday that between 30,000 and 50,000 people in North Carolina have already had the swine flu.

"As the school year begins, I'm concerned that the H1N1 virus might disrupt learning in some schools across the country," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said on Monday.

When student Eric Young came down with the H1N1 virus in June, Reedy Creek Middle School in Cary was thoroughly sanitized and parents were notified via voice message.

“I had my 15 minutes of fame. They (students) called me piglet, and all these other names that have to do with pigs, but I just didn't really care,” Eric Young said.

It didn't take long though for the virus to spread through the Young family.

“He got sick on a Sunday. I got sick on the following Friday and went into the doctor's office. They ran the tests. Monday morning they (doctors) called me and said that it was swine flu,” mother Annick Young said.

Annick Young’s other son also got the H1N1 virus earlier this month, another indication of how quickly the illness can spread.

Duncan said schools should be ready with printed material and online lessons to keep learning going even if swine flu sickens large numbers of students.

Duncan said schools should evaluate what materials they have available for at-home learning. The latest guidance provides more details on methods schools could use, such as distributing recorded classes on podcasts and DVDs; creating take-home packets with up to 12 weeks of printed class material; or holding live classes via conference calls or "webinars."

Federal officials said earlier this month schools should close only as a last resort. They also advised that students and teachers can return to school or work 24 hours after their fever is gone; the old advice was to stay home for a week. The virus prompted more than 700 schools to temporarily close last spring.

In North Carolina, 156 people have been hospitalized with H1N1 and nine people have died, Engel said.

World Health Organization said H1N1 has killed almost 1,800 people worldwide as of Aug. 13. By definition, it is a pandemic, or an epidemic that has spread around the world.

WHO earlier estimated that as many as 2 billion people could become infected over the next two years – nearly one-third of the world's population.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said clinical trials of the swine flu vaccine "look good." Vaccinations could be ready to be administered by mid-October, she said.

"We anticipate using schools as partners to make sure that we reach out to kids who are a priority population to get the vaccination," she said.

Public health officials plan to have H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines ready and available to as many people as possible during the flu season, which typically runs from December through next May.