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Schools feeling the pinch of the flu bug

November 11, 2009
WINNISQUAM — As people in the Winnisquam Region keep an eye on the spread of the H1N1 flu, schools are being especially vigilant, monitoring signs and symptoms of their students' illnesses.

Shaker Regional School District, noting a high volume of students being sent to the nurse at Belmont Middle School, canceled a school dance last Friday in order to give students a chance to go home and rest for the weekend.

"We had 60 kids at the nurses office (on Thursday), many with sore throats and other flu-like symptoms, so it was decided that it was best to just let everyone take a break from being together and go home and get healthy," said Superintendent Michael Cozort last Friday afternoon.

The Center for Disease Control has recommended such measures, he said, when schools see a rise in flu symptoms being reported. The cancellation also allowed the janitorial staff in the school an opportunity to further their cleaning measures within the building.

Region 6 Emergency Preparedness Immunization Outreach Coordinator, Maren Bicknell, agreed that social distancing was a good practice when an epidemic like H1N1 strikes. People are recommended to stay six feet away from others to decrease the risk of exposure or avoid public gatherings whenever possible. Close contact can allow the virus to spread more readily. Bicknell is working with local schools who have requested her to help educate students on good hygiene practices that will help keep them healthy as the flu season gets underway. She will be assisting in the set up and operation of school-based vaccination clinics for children once the vaccine is available.

"It's really important to get kids vaccinated. There's no mercury in this vaccine and as long as someone isn't allergic to eggs, they should get the vaccine," Bicknell said.

Even if someone is exhibiting flu symptoms, there are other flu viruses that affect people this time of year besides H1N1. Only a blood test will say for sure which particular virus a person has. Having a flu-like illness does not make someone immune from H1N1 and people should get vaccinated, even if they have already been ill.

"The doctor's aren't testing for H1N1 except in rare cases, so it's hard to say which flu someone may have had," said Bicknell. "There's no harm in receiving the vaccine even if you did already have any type of flu."

Classrooms are not the only place the viruses are spreading among students. School athletic teams have suffered as well and some athletes have had to sit out recent play-off games and other end-of-season competitions.

"It's something we all just have to deal with," said Cozort. "Coaches now have an added dimension to caring for their athletes."

Belmont High School has seen the highest number of students calling in sick, with 10-15 percent absent in the past week. Schools are stocking up with plenty of hand sanitizers, encouraging students not to share food and drinks, and stressing the importance of good hygiene. Faculty at all local schools seem to be faring well and administrators are hoping that trend will continue.

At Winnisquam Regional School District, superintendent Dr. Tammy Davis said she has been monitoring the symptoms students have reported and so far feels WRSD has fared better than some districts. In the last few days however, numbers in absenteeism have risen slightly.

"On Friday we had 145 students out and 66 of them had flu-like symptoms. The day before there were 102 out with 30 of them having flu-like symptoms so it has gone up a little bit," she said on Monday afternoon. Winnisquam has not had to cancel any school events yet due to illness, but, she noted, "That could all change tomorrow."

Numbers in both Shaker and Winnisquam seem to be higher with middle and high school students where they pass closely in the hallways between classes and spend more time together with sports and other school activities. Bicknell cautions that students who are ill need to stay home. Most schools are not penalizing students for being absent and are working to help them catch up on class work missed.

"H1N1 is moving north now and there are times when you just have to stay home and away from other people to prevent spreading the virus," she said.

The Department of Health and Human Services now has a 211 phone number where residents with questions or concerns can call and speak to a person on H1N1- specific topics. Two Web sites, www.flu.gov and the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov, all have information and up-to-date tracking of the virus.

As a health educator, Bicknell is available to speak with schools, civic and community groups about prevention, vaccination and ways to stay healthy as the flu numbers are likely to rise.

"We're here as a resource for people," she said.

Bicknell can be reached at the Caring Community Network of the Twin Rivers office Monday through Friday at 934-0177, ext. 162. Residents of Belmont can contact health officials at the Lakes Region Partnership for Public Health by calling 528-2145 for information on programs and measures being taken in that area of the Lakes Region.

Martin Lord and Osman
Salmon Press
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