Schools, communities ready for flu season and swine flu vaccine
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 4, 2009 - As Lynn Potts of Chesterfield prepares to send her children back to school Aug. 17, she's more concerned about buying notebooks and getting them settled in new classrooms than swine flu. "I'm not one of those hysterical people," Potts said.
But if the Parkway School District recommends swine flu, or H1N1, shots for her second grader, fifth grader and high school senior, she'd consider it for the younger ones and definitely get it for the oldest, who she feels is more at risk because teenagers often fail to place enough importance on hygiene.
School districts and other community organizations are on alert after a summer of camps canceled by swine flu, followed by Friday's announcement by the Centers for Disease Control that all children 6 months and older should be vaccinated. The St. Louis County Department of Health expects the vaccine to become available in late October, when clinical trials are finished.
In anticipation, several organizations are brainstorming about the best ways to distribute the vaccine. They're also ramping up their prevention efforts.
"We're going through everything we know about it -- and learning more," said Craig Lefebvre, a spokesperson for the county Department of Health.
BACK TO SCHOOL INCLUDES HYGIENE 101
The Parkway school system isn't taking a stance on swine flu shots yet, but it will continue the emphasis on hygiene it began last year, including effective hand washing and cough covering: "A lot of things we always do during flu season," said Cathy Kelly, Parkway's public information specialist.
St. Louis Public Schools are also focusing on good health habits. In addition, the district will report to the health department once a week the number of children and staff absent because of flu and also strengthen its message that sick children don't belong at school.
"Parents need to keep children home if they have flu-like symptoms. If they continue over 24 to 48 hours or get worse, they need to contact the child's primary care provider," advised Richelle Clark, SLPS director of student support services.
SOCIAL NETWORKS WILL SOUND ALARM
School districts the Beacon contacted say they will use their websites along with tried-and-true methods to get the word out concerning where and when shots may be available. "Our most effective way is to deal face to face with children's parents and guardians at open houses and regular parent-teacher association meetings," Clark said.
But social media will also play a role. Both the city and county health departments are looking into these modern-day methods of spreading the word.
"We don't currently have FaceBook, MySpace or Twitter so we're looking at setting up some sort of viral media so we can be ready for the information to go out there," Lefebvre said.
"We'll use e-mail and text messaging for the teachers and parents, and if we have access to the youth, we'll text message them as well," said Warren Nichols, public information manager for the city health department.
St. Louis schools will be one of several distribution points for swine flu shots when they become available. The county is also planning to offer vaccines in schools for children in kindergarten through 12th grade and appeal to pediatricians to vaccinate babies and preschoolers. For the public, shots will be available at grocery stores and malls and during weekend events at community centers and schools.
It's important that people get their annual flu shots this year as well; it's a completely different vaccine than the swine flu shot. Until the H1N1 shots are available, good habits are more important than ever.
"We've got this period before the vaccination comes when good hygiene is key," said Mike Williams, director of communicable disease control with the county health department.
KEEPING BUSINESSES AFLOAT
From April through July 24, there were 44,000 reported cases of H1N1, with 5,500 hospitalizations, nationwide. Most recovered without medical treatment, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. So far, 353 have died from swine flu in the U.S. That compares to 36,000 killed in this country every year by causes related to regular, seasonal flu. Swine flu symptoms are similar to those of regular flu.
In June, the World Health Organization labeled swine flu a pandemic not because of its severity but because of its worldwide incidence.
Since concern over the new flu surfaced last spring, the St. Louis chapter of the American Red Cross has seen its flu preparedness programs for children and adults double in size over the same period last year. One of those programs, called Scrubby Bear, takes a practical and fun approach to teaching children that proper hand washing takes a minimum of 15 seconds.
"We teach the children that if they sing the 'Happy Birthday' song, that's about the same amount of time it takes to wash your hands thoroughly," said Nicole Holtgrefe, director of client services and preparedness for the local Red Cross.
The Red Cross is also stocking up on what it calls "germ guard personal protection packs" including a mask and items to sanitize a work space. Proceeds benefit the Red Cross.
A group of professionals, including those from Edward Jones, Washington University School of Medicine and local departments of health formed three years ago to prepare for a possible avian flu epidemic, is gearing up its efforts against swine flu. Recently, PandemicPrep.orgexpanded its once-quarterly meetings to monthly.
The gatherings are designed to help with a number of situations, including shoring up businesses to survive a temporary loss of staff during a widespread flu outbreak. Recommendations include getting systems in place for employees to work from home.
A serious epidemic could affect up to 40 percent of a company's employees, including those who are sick, have sick children, must care for children whose schools have shut down or are simply afraid to leave their homes. Harlan Dolgin, PandemicPrep.org's executive director, says his staffers tell people "to plan for the worst and hope for the best."
Nancy Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.