Local schools address swine flue concerns

By Eric Butler: Freedom New Mexico

It’s flu season and the recent death of a Roosevelt County infant has raised concerns in Portales.

But school and emergency management officials said Tuesday the number of students calling in sick from flu-like symptoms is about the usual experienced this time of year.

Still, the amount of absences in the Portales school system at the beginning of the week was notable.

Superintendent Randy Fowler said Portales Junior High, which has 433 students, had more than 140 absences on Tuesday. Around the same number were missing from the high school, which has a student body of 800.

Fowler said his school system is sending a letter home with students which includes a seasonal and H1N1 flu guide.

“We’re just telling the parents that, if your child is not feeling well or running a fever, they need to follow the guidelines and keep them home until they no longer have it,” Fowler said. “We just don’t want parents to panic — we just want them to be aware.”

What Clovis, Portales and Tucumcari Schools, among others, are also fighting is the new H1N1 strain that first began to be known to the public last spring as the swine flu.

“We’ve got kids absent everyday and parents don’t always tell us why their kids are absent,” said Rhonda Sparks, director of Health Services for the Clovis Municipal School System. “We’ve got lots of kids absent in the Clovis schools, just like we always do during flu season. It’s also the season for things like strep and mono — there’s lots of diseases that have the same kinds of symptoms.”

The New Mexico Department of Health reports eight people in New Mexico have died either as a result of H1N1 influenza or with the virus as a contributing factor. One was an infant in Roosevelt County.

Chris Minnick, public information officer with the department, said “there’s literally thousands of cases in the state right now” and believes cases will emerge in every county.

“I’m sure there is more (worry) and it’s all because of all the information that’s been put out about H1N1 since last spring — plus we’ve had a death in our area,” Fowler said. “I’m sure parents are more concerned. We’ve had years in the past where the flu season was just real difficult for us, but we expect that this is going to be a little different than the norm.”

Statistically, some area schools are saying no real difference is apparent yet in overall flu numbers.

Tucumcari Assistant Superintendent Dennis Roch said his system’s current attendance rate is at 95.3 percent. “That’s pretty standard for us,” Roch said.

In Texico, school nurse Karen Stevenson estimated only “three or four” students, out of a population of 550, have reported having the flu.

The protocol for dealing with H1N1, according to Sparks, is not significantly different than the approach for typical flu strains of the past.

“If your children are sick, keep them home. If they have a certain subset of symptoms that worsen, then you need to seek care, don’t bring them back to school until they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours,” she said.

Sparks added the “subset of symptoms” would include a sustained fever of over 100 degrees, a persistent cough and a sore throat.

“Lots of our docs are doing nasal cultures to type the kind of flu that they have. We’re encouraging folks to get seasonal flu shots and we’ll be giving out H1N1 when that gets here,” Sparks said. “We don’t have any H1N1 yet; word is it should get to the public health department in the next couple of weeks.

“There will be a clear protocol for who gets it, because they’ll be a limited amount of doses,” she continued.

Penny Bailey, Clovis Municipal Schools communication specialist, said that “no news of alarming absences have been reported to the central office.”

But school system officials are staying in the en guard position.

“Every school in the United States, before this is over, is probably going to see one case of swine flu,” Sparks said. “It’s out there and providers are doing a really good job of telling families what to do — as we hope we are.”