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In the Kansas City area, 'normal' life takes a hit from swine flu
Janet Spallo, principal of St. Peter’s Catholic School in Brookside, says it’s like watching children play with a ball of yarn. Catch it, hold it for a beat, toss it to the next kid.
Soon everyone is connected.
Just like that, the H1N1 virus spread through her school last week. Student to student, class to class.
In the six months since scientists identified the virus, swine flu has killed 11 people in Kansas and Missouri, among more than 600 across the country. It has put an estimated 9,000 in the hospital.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Friday that 11 more children had died of H1N1, bringing the total to 86 since the epidemic began. Half of those deaths have occurred since Aug. 30.
During a typical flu season, about 40 to 50 children die from the flu.
For most people, this flu has been little more than a few days of misery. But when you multiply those days by a city, the consequences add up.
Schools postponing tests and report cards. Activities — football practices, volleyball tournaments, karate classes — canceled or carried on with a handful of participants. Store owners worrying that sick days will translate into lost sales. Employees burning vacation days they had been saving for the holidays.
At St. Peter’s last week, Spallo said, “(This) grew before our eyes.”
Where it will end remains impossible to predict, health officials say.
“We wish we could predict the future,” said Tom Frieden, CDC director. “But we can’t. We do know that flu season generally lasts well into May.
“So we’ve got many, many months ahead of us where we don’t know what will happen, and we need to take the best steps we can to protect ourselves.”
• • •
Julie Lisac did what she could: She reminded her husband, Mike, and their three children to wash their hands. Again. And again. And again.
Still, one week ago , George, 10, began feeling hot. His legs felt like they wouldn’t hold him up.
She sent him to bed. The next morning, Julie called in his absence to St. Peter’s. She thought she heard the school secretary sigh. There are a lot out today, the secretary said.
The Lisacs went on to work, thinking they had better save their own sick days. Julie was scheduled for just 2½ hours, she could make phone checks, and the neighbors next door would be home.
Just before 8 a.m., she walked in the door at Pediatric Associates on the Country Club Plaza, where she is a nurse.
What she saw jolted her.
“The sick room was totally full. Kids were sitting in the perimeter. Kids in blankets and pajamas sitting with their parents. Kids coughing and hacking. I couldn’t believe how many.”
Most of the sick were told to get rest and stay hydrated and sent home. Only those with other health conditions got prescriptions, Lisac said.
Before the day was through, her oldest child, Emma, 12, would be home with a fever.
• • •
When Lisac stopped at St. Peter’s after work to pick up George’s homework, she found herself in a line with about 30 other people.
Most were parents of fifth-graders.
“We were all comparing notes on our kids’ illnesses,” Lisac said. “Everybody’s symptoms sounded pretty much the same.”
Headache. Achiness. Coughing. A fever.
Some parents apologized to Lisac, fearing it was their children who had exposed her children to the virus.
“I told them you can’t stop this unless you live in a bubble. Besides, maybe it’s a good thing. … At least we’re getting it now before it might change into something worse, right?”
(The CDC has been concerned that the virus could mutate into something more deadly, Frieden said. But so far, so good: “The virus has been quite stable genetically. It hasn’t changed much at all.”)
In the school office, the phones just kept ringing, the number of sick children increasing with every call.
St. Peter’s has about 585 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. On Monday and Tuesday, nearly half of the 66 fifth-graders were sick. About 50 more children were absent from other grades.
Teachers started asking Spallo what to do about this quarter’s tests with so many fifth-graders missing. What about report cards? The volleyball team had only four players. Football practice was canceled. The school changed Mass: No more joining hands at the “Our Father” prayer portion.
Despite the sanitizers in the doorway of every classroom, the eye-catching signs showing a cartoon monkey washing his hands, the teachers walking the hallways and wiping down surfaces with bleach, the flu was all around.
“Well, at least we don’t have a lice problem,” Spallo said with a laugh, after miming an “air” handshake to greet a parent.
Spallo was a teacher for 20 years but can’t remember a time when so many kids were absent at once.
She did see a bright side.
“There’s a heightened awareness of hygiene. Kids are coughing and sneezing into their sleeves and shirts. I saw a girl pick up a Kleenex off the floor by using another Kleenex to pick it up with.”
She wipes her desk at least once every hour. As she talked, she pumped a sanitizer for a hit of germ-killing gel. A few seconds later, she did it again.
“We are juggling everything. We had two snow days built in, but if we can’t make up the time now, we’ll have to do it at the end of the year. And nobody wants to do that, either. …
“We’re praying a lot.”
A few blocks from St. Peter’s, the CVS pharmacy on 63rd Street was calm Wednesday afternoon.
But that morning the waiting area had been standing room only, said a pharmacist who wouldn’t give her name. She was quick to note that with the flu, unless there is a prescription, there is nothing to help except over-the-counter medicines to ease symptoms.
“Get the shot when it comes out,” she advised, looking up from filling a prescription.
The pharmacy had been offering seasonal flu shots, but the provider ran out of vaccine, an annoyance to customers and employees.
“I need both seasonal and H1N1 shots,” said a cashier at the front of the store. “I do not want to get sick, but I see everybody who comes in buying their flu stuff. That’s all I hear, ‘Get the flu shots,’ and then there aren’t any. I feel like I’m doomed to get sick.”
A few doorways down, sisters Casey and Sloane Simmons were straightening colorful rag rugs in their eclectic store Stuff.
Each day, before they open and after they close, Casey wages the store’s battle against the flu.
“I call it our Lysol parade,” she said with a giggle. “I walk up and down the aisles spraying, hoping it’s disinfecting as I go. I know I look silly, but this thing scares me to death.”
Not so much for the illness it could bring, she says, but for the lost time.
“We can’t isolate ourselves from the public,” she said. “But we’re a small business. We have limited staffing. If nobody is here, we don’t make any money. … If one or two of us get the flu, we’ll probably all get it.”