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King County modifies flu approach

Officials with Seattle/King County Public Health have modified the approach to dealing with students who are suspected to have cases of the H1N1 flu virus.

With increasing numbers of possible cases being reported around the Puget Sound area the King County Public Health Department changed its tactic over the weekend. Students suspected to be sick are being sent home, but schools are remaining open as the virus becomes more common. Officials have said shutting schools down for a week is not longer a good way to keep the flu from spreading.

Families, students and staff in the Mercer Island School District are being urged to take precautions against getting sick as incidences of the H1N1 influenza continue to rise in the state. Currently, the district is in the prevention part of their pandemic flu plan, following a task force meeting on Thursday, according to MISD Superintendent Gary Plano.

He said information has been sent to parents and staff within the school and updated information is being added to the district's Web site as it becomes available.

"The most important thing is if you are feeling ill you should stay home," said Plano during an update at the April 30 School Board meeting.

Plano said the nursing staff has been directed if a child comes to the office with possible symptoms to immediately direct the student home, with instructions for parents to contact their health practitioner. Plano said the district has increased the number of bottles of disinfect to the school's lunchrooms and computer labs so students can disinfect their hands following use of keyboards and other items handled frequently. Staff in the health rooms at the various schools have been given masks for themselves and students who arrive coughing.

Bonnie Barthelme, one of the district's nurses and member of the pandemic flu task force, said when students arrive in their office the health staff is assessing them for flu symptoms, asking whether or not they've been traveling or if other family members are sick to aid in identifying if a child needs to be sent home.

"Teachers are our eyes as well," she said. "We're asking them to send students in if they aren't feeling well."

Plano said school closure decisions will be handed down by Seattle/King County Public Health if a student is found to have the flu.

"We will abide by the rules of the county," said Plano. "If someone is positive we'll do as directed by the Department of Health."

If a student in the district is found to have the flu Plano said the district would also notify parents, staff and the community.

Plano said the district had contacted the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to find out what would happen if a school was required to close, because the district has maxed out the number of make-up days in the school calendar, following several winter storms. He said in previous cases of state-wide emergencies waivers have been granted to schools to keep classes from running into the summer.

"At this time we're obtaining information," said Plano.

OSPI is reminding schools, students and families the best thing they can do is re-emphasize common sense health measures, such as washing hands, covering sneezes and cough and to stay home if anyone feels sick. OSPI is also urging people that this is not a time to panic, but prepare. The agency, along with the Department of Health and other local and state groups, developed plans to deal with possible pandemics in 2005 following concerns of the "bird flu".

"Hand washing, that's the number one thing," said Barthelme of prevention. Other tips include not sharing water bottles or other drinks and maybe instead of reaching into a bowl of chips to consider using a spoon, she said.

"Just using little extra precautions because we don't know a lot about this virus and what it's going to do," she said. "We have a fair number of parents taking precautions already."

This strain of the flu carries symptoms of fever, sore throat, cough, body aches, headaches, chills and fatigue. It can last up to seven days and people are considered contagious for as long as they have symptoms.

Several schools across King, Pierce and Snohomish have been closed due to the flu. Officials with the city of Mercer Island are also staying up to date with information, saying they are prepared, but urge caution rather then panic.

"We are staying completely consistent with King County the and Department of Health. We just follow their plan and what they're doing. So far, even though we have 10 probable cases, we're trying not to make this anything more than it is right now. As a government, we have to prepare for the worst; but the reality is we don't want to cause a panic," said Jennifer Franklin the emergency preparedness officer for Mercer Island.

MISD is updating information as it is received on their Web site at www.k12.wa.us/HealthServices/swineflu.aspx. Information will also be available on the city's Web site www.mercergov.org.

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