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Health officials cramming for possible H1N1 outbreak

Back to school may mean more cases of flu
By: Michelle Miller-Carl Journal News Editor
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When you’re doing back-to-school shopping in the coming days, you may want to add another item to your list: hand sanitizer. Officials with the Centers for Disease Control are anticipating a proliferation of the H1N1 flu, formerly called swine flu, when kids return to school in the fall. They’re also issuing dire predictions that as many as four in 10 Americans could contract the illness in the next two years. But Placer County health officials are taking the threat seriously. “You can never fully prepare for something if the potential is that dire, but we are preparing for a big surge in cases,” said Mark Starr, director of community health for Placer County. The county continually works with its health care partners to prepare for any health-care crisis. “What we do with our health-care partners is ask, ‘What do if twice as many (patients) show up?’ and develop a preparedness plan based on that,” Starr said. That plan could include recruiting volunteer staff to open more beds in understaffed hospitals. It could also mean reprioritizing patients with non-urgent care needs or setting up alternate care sites in places such as community centers. The county may also be the one handing out an H1N1 vaccine alongside private health providers. The government is currently working on production of a vaccine that could be available by October. Starr said he doesn’t know how much vaccine would be available, but delivering it would be a big priority for the county. Health officials are working to determine which groups would have priority to receive the vaccine, Starr said. They may prioritize the vaccine for women and children because the elderly, so far, have not been as susceptible to H1N1. Starr said it might be because older people were exposed to the 1957 flu pandemic, which is the same “family” as the current H1N1. Many are worried that children going back to school could play a role in the spread of the H1N1 strain. “The CDC and the California Department of Public Health have said once kids go back to school, there’s an increased risk of any flu,” said Bebe Pedicini, nursing manager at Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital. “H1N1 could burst up when kids get all back together in class.” As the chairwoman of the hospital’s Emergency Management Committee, Pedicini helps ensure the hospital is properly stocked with antiviral medication, masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizer. The hospital also uses signage requesting people with a cough to use masks to reduce exposure to other people. These precautions are taken for any patient showing flu symptoms who may have a probable case of H1N1. “We see flu every year. It’s not unusual to see flu. But the concern with H1N1 is it is a new virus and a new virus is unpredictable,” During the spring outbreak, Pedicini said the hospital was receiving alerts about the virus way before it hit the presses. She said good communication, including daily conferences with the county Health Department, helped health officials keep tabs on the illness during the spring outbreak. “We’re already planning for the next flu event with the county. We sat down and talked about what went well and what we want to improve on and we’re putting this in place now for if it jumps again in September.” Tiersa Warmuth of Foresthill plans on sending hand sanitizer in her son’s lunch box when he heads to first grade at Foresthill Elementary School later this month. “I am concerned, obviously, but I know we can’t live in a bubble. We can’t put our kids in a bubble,” she said. “I’ll probably take more precautions with him, talk to him about washing his hands more and keep him home when he’s sick and do my part.” But with janitorial staff cuts at the school, she wonders if the classrooms are being cleaned as often as they could. “I think cleaning every other day is not enough,” she said. “Teachers can only do so much and I understand that as a parent I can only do so much, but it is a concern.” Starr recommends people stay home from work and school when they’re sick. But for families with strapped resources, he realizes that recommendation may not always be followed. “We know it’s difficult for a working person to stay home when they have a sick child or they are sick,” he said. “Those are our recommendations, but a challenge is definitely there.” Auburn Union School District Superintendent Michele Schuetz said schools expect to see a spike in seasonal flu from December to February and encourage parents to keep kids home. “As much as we want kids to come to school every day, when they’re running a fever or throwing up, they need to stay home 24 hours until those symptoms go away,” she said. Schuetz said schools started responding to the H1N1 threat last spring by putting anti-bacterial soap dispensers in every classroom, performing extensive cleaning of classrooms, and doing what teachers do best — educate. “We’d talk to the students about not putting their mouths on drinking fountains and not touching their mouths,” she said. “What we really want to do is educate the parents, students and staff.” First-grade teacher Lysa Sassman at Rock Creek Elementary incorporates germ awareness into her classroom. She shows an animated video to her kids about who germs spread and encourages them to cough or sneeze on elbows. And if they do spread germs they have to go wash their hands. Although the classroom has its own hand-sanitizer dispenser, Sassman said many of her students last year brought their own supply to keep at their desks. “I feel that my students have a strong understanding of the importance of preventing the spread of germs,” Sassman said. “If 6- and 7-year-olds can understand then just about everyone can!” Michelle Miller-Carl can be reached at michellem@goldcountrymedia.com. ---------- Reduce the spread To help reduce the spread of flu, county health officials recommend you: - Cover your cough with your sleeve or a tissue so as not to spread germs - Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hand cleaners are also effective. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. - Avoid close contact with people who are sick, and stay home when you are sick (fever and cough or sore throat) to avoid infecting others.