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O’Connell: School Officials Play Key Role in Stemming Spread of Swine Flu

— School officials can play a key role in stemming the spread of swine flu, which has infected seven people across Southern California, state schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell said in San Diego today.

The announcement came as Washington declared a public health emergency as an influenza virus has apparently mutated into a form that can be transmitted from human to human, and that can inflict misery or death on a population that has no immunity.

“We want to make sure we take all preventative measures as are necessary,'' O'Connell said at a San Diego news conference.

Officials with school districts around San Diego County can go to the state Department of Education Web site to download a free ``Keep Our Schools Healthy'' toolkit that includes sample letters to send home to parents and posters to place on campus to remind children about proper hygiene. The toolkits come in multiple languages, O'Connell said.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the nationwide health emergency at a White House press briefing today. ``That sounds more severe than really it is,'' she said. ``This is standard operating procedure and allows us to free up federal, state, and local agencies and their resources for prevention and mitigation,'' she said.

Medical officials recommend frequent washing of hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and remaining home when you get sick.

Four people in San Diego County and three people in adjacent Imperial County have contracted the illness, and have recovered. However, 81 deaths in Mexico have been blamed on the disease.

Public health officials are concerned that the disease, normally contracted by close proximity to pigs, is now jumping from human to human. ``Flu viruses are extremely unpredictable and variable, outbreaks of infectious disease are extremely unpredictable and variable,'' said John Brennan, a White House aid, at a morning briefing in Washington.

Public health officials expect the flu to spread and warned it has the potential to become pandemic.

``We have heightened our surveillance and put area healthcare providers on alert. This will most likely generate additional cases of human infection with swine influenza,'' said San Diego County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten.

The agency is working closely with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health to determine how the four people in the county became infected, said HHSA spokesman Jose Alvarez.

The four local victims included two boys ages 7 and 10 and a 54-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter, said Alvarez. Three cases have been reported in Imperial County and two in Texas, while New York has also reported cases.

One of the San Diegans infected with swine flu had traveled to Mexico, but it was unclear if that is where the person became infected, said Dr. Richard Besser, acting CDC director.

The CDC has issued an outbreak notice for Mexico, but has not issued any travel restrictions.

In Mexico City, people have taken to wearing surgical masks, and some schools have been closed in an effort to stop the spread of the disease.

O'Connell said parents should send their children to school on Monday. “Our schools in California are safe,'' O'Connell said. ``We want to make sure our parents and professional educators so everything they can to keep our schools safe.''

To keep the outbreak in perspective, only a few children out of a state enrollment of 6.3 million students have been infected, he said.

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