A sixth grade student at Ascencion Solorsano Middle School was hospitalized last week with severe swine flu-like symptoms, but county health department staff said the initial fears associated with the virus should be toned down.
The girl is just one of many school children and community members who may have contracted the strain of influenza responsible for last spring's scare, said Joy Alexiou, a spokeswoman with the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. Although the Solorsano student's case was not confirmed as swine flu, she tested positive for influenza and the district is "going on the assumption that it's H1N1," said district Head Nurse Eileen Bontempi.
Monday alone, Bontempi sent about a dozen Solorsano students home with flu-like symptoms, and last week, 88 students were out sick, compared to 22 during the same time last year, Solorsano Principal Sal Tomasello said. Chances are these students had swine flu, Alexiou said.
"Until just about now, all flu in the community was H1N1" whether it was confirmed or not, she said. "If you had the flu over the summer, you had H1N1."
H1N1 virus ushers In Early flu season
Flu season has begun early, and "nearly all of the influenza that we're seeing is this novel H1N1 virus," said Daniel Jernigan, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's a very strange thing for us to see this amount of influenza at this time of year."
Not only are more students calling in sick, they're staying out for longer, said Roger Cornia, the school district's enrollment coordinator. Though he did not have the exact number of absentees in the last couple weeks, Cornia said the trend at Solorsano holds true throughout the district, especially at the middle school level.
"We're aware of it, we just don't have the raw numbers," he said. "But it's definitely had an impact on attendance and it's come very early this year."
The school district receives a large portion of its state funding based on student attendance. Thus, the school district loses money when children are not at their desks. However, excused absences - including absences because of an illness that are called in - don't detract from the district's funding, Cornia said.
When comparing the last four days to the same time period last school year, Luigi Aprea Elementary School's data showed absences up by more than 50 percent. The school's attendance coordinator, Lisa Velasco, reported 99 absences from Monday to Thursday - an average of 25 per day - compared to 62 over the same period last year. Nearly 800 students attend the school. However, the absences were not all for illness and some are overlaps, she said. Velasco attributed the increased number of absentees to an earlier flu season and more conscientious parents.
Though administrative assistant Linda Martinez at the Dr. T.J. Owens Gilroy Early College Academy did not have last year's attendance data readily available, anecdotally she said absenteeism is up, especially for this early in the school year. Over the last week, eight students and Principal Mary Ann Boylan called in sick, she said. Tissues and hand sanitizer occupy top spots on the school's wish list and teachers emphasize hand washing and at-home recovery with their students.
"If you're sick, stay home," said Christopher High School Principal John Perales. Like Velasco, he noticed more children out of school due to illness earlier in the school year but noted that it may be because of parents' heightened awareness.
"I have not noticed anything that would alarm me as far as the numbers are concerned," he said.
Swine flu unconfirmed but likely
It's uncertain whether students have contracted the novel H1N1 virus or have simply fallen victim to the seasonal flu, Bontempi said. Though the Solorsano girl had the most severe case, students throughout the district have tested positive for influenza, Bontempi said. So far, the district has not received word of any confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus strain responsible for the 2009 flu pandemic, Bontempi said.
Although county health is not tracking H1N1 on a case-by-case basis, public health officials are monitoring the number of people checking into hospitals with flu-like symptoms.
"We've definitely seen an uptick since school started," Alexiou said.
The county health department only tests hospitalized patients, she said. After confirming at a county facility that a virus is Type A Influenza, health officials send a sample on to the state health department, which can confirm if the illness is H1N1. Since May the county has had 136 confirmed cases of swine flu in hospitalized patients, Alexiou said.
However, attitudes have changed dramatically since swine flu scares closed schools across the country last spring, Bontempi said. Just because a student exhibits symptoms of swine flu, schools aren't closing or sending out letters this year, Bontempi said. Nonetheless, some parents are "up in arms" about not receiving notice each time a student at their child's school is sent home with flu-like symptoms, she said.
"It's not the scary virus everyone thought it was," she said. "The virus hasn't gained strength so far. We just have a lot of people getting it."
The symptoms and severity of the strain of H1N1 responsible for last spring's pandemic is now "acting very much the same as the seasonal flu," Alexiou said. However, the novel strain has been known to affect children and young adults more than the elderly, unlike seasonal flu.
H1N1 has been labeled a "pandemic" not because of its severity, but because of three other criteria - it's new so most people have no immunity, it spreads easily from person to person, and it has spread around the world, Alexiou said.
Though county public health officials know more about the virus than they did at its outbreak last spring, and though officials expects 240,000 doses of the swine flu vaccine within the next couple weeks, health officials urge families to practice preventative care.
People should wash their hands frequently and thoroughly with soap. Bontempi advised singing the tune "Happy Birthday" twice while lathering up to ensure at least 15 seconds of hand washing. Perales also recommended people also keep their hands away from they eyes and nose, and refrain from sharing drinks and food.
People should get the seasonal flu shot - available now - and the H1N1 vaccine when it's available, Alexiou said. Those most at risk will be able to receive the vaccine first.
When children do get sick, parents should isolate them and keep them home for 24 hours after the child's fever breaks, Bontempi said.
"Just go home and stay home and get better," she said.
While many people will recover from H1N1 after a few days of rest, Alexiou advised parents with children under a year old, patients that are sicker than they would be with the seasonal flu, people with a fever for more than three days, and people with chronic illness or immune deficiencies like asthma to see a doctor.
Shortness of breath, chest pain, trouble breathing, continued vomiting, seizures and lethargy that escalates into confusion warrant immediate medical care, she added.
H1N1 is best prevented and treated with a "common sense" approach, Alexiou said.
"You know your kid. You know when they're not acting normal and when you should call the doctor," she said. "If it's a normal bout of flu or cold, keep (your child) home to care for them. If it gets worse, call your doctor. If it gets worse fast, go to the emergency room."http://www.gilroydispatch.com/news/2595 ... ts-schools