Tuesday, August 11, 2009
U.S. The federal government issued guidelines Friday to the nation's schools on what to do about the likely return this fall of the new H1N1 swine flu virus.
"We can't stop the tide of flu from coming in, but we can reduce the number of people who become severely ill from it," said Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A good place to start is with the 55 million students in the nation's schools.
When the new H1N1 flu first made its appearance last spring, federal health authorities urged schools to consider closing even if a single student got sick. They eventually backed off that advice, and now they are backing off even further.
"We know more how it behaves, we know more how to control it, what it does and doesn't do," Frieden said. "And it's now clear that closure of schools is rarely indicated even if H1N1 is in the school."
He said there are measures that can be taken to protect students and staff. First, keep sick children and staff home; they can come back after 24 hours of no fever. Second, get kids to wash their hands. Third, train them to cough into their elbows, not into their hands or onto their classmates' faces.
The government is recommending that students and staff with flu-like symptoms be sent to an isolated room and then sent home. Schools with special populations, such as pregnant teens or students with cerebral palsy, might want to consider temporary closures.
The government says schools should prepare themselves for the chance that the virus may mutate into something that causes more serious illness.
"In that situation, we would, for example, suggest that local schools and public health officials coordinate closely to actively screen kids when they walk into the school each day," Frieden said.
In that case, people with underlying conditions such as asthma or diabetes could stay home; and for the children who did come to school, keeping them from congregating would be a good idea, according to the guidelines.
Debra Munk, principal of Rockville High School in Rockville, Md., says her school may have been shut down for three days last spring unnecessarily, but the move was made with the best of intentions, when little was known about the virus. She said she was happy to see the federal government make it clear that closing schools is a last resort.
"Closing any school has so many social ramifications. When my school closed, I have no way of knowing my students aren't congregating together," Munk says. "I have no knowledge that they're supervised, [or] ... engaging in other risky behavior.
"For those three days, I didn't know where my kids were, and I guarantee they weren't just sitting home quarantined."
Julie Harris Lawrence, who works on safety issues for the Texas Education Agency, says the new guidelines are pretty much what Texas has put into effect already. The recommendation to avoid letting students congregate if the virus changes is easy enough.
"Having morning assemblies — maybe we don't want to do that if we have flu in the school," she says. "Maybe we don't want to put all the music classes together to practice this week."
Lunches in the cafeteria may also go if the new H1N1 virus comes back in a stronger form.