At universities across the nation, thousands of students are contracting the swine flu, or H1N1. Locally, the virus appeared to dissipate towards the end of the summer. But with Pierson classes scheduled to begin this week, school officials and local doctors are preparing for a second outbreak of the illness.
“The risk [of contracting swine flu] is going to be high when the kids go back to school. In Florida [where children start school earlier], we are already starting to see large cases of swine flu,” noted Dr. Peter Raia, a family physician based in Southampton. The colder weather and enclosed school quarters provides the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread, added Dr. Raia
Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto pointed out that swine flu shouldn’t be a cause for alarm and is more akin to the common seasonal flu than a deadly virus. When the swine flu was first reported in the United States in the spring, little was known about the new influenza strain. Schools in the metropolitan area often shut down at the first sign of a confirmed case.
This fall, the school will focus their efforts on educating students and parents about the spread of the virus. Sag Harbor Elementary school nurse, Margaret Pulkingham has been tasked with this duty for the younger children. Pulkingham admitted teaching children about the transference of illnesses is tricky, but said she uses a series of games, pictures and demonstrations to help them understand these concepts.
“One of the things I do is I have a black light and give the children a packet of fake germs to spread on their hands [the germs are an innocuous glow-in-the-dark liquid]. I have some kids wash their hands with just water, others with water and soap and others I make wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. [Under the black light] the children really see the difference,” remarked Pulkingham. She plans to make a series of presentations at morning program as well as visits to classrooms.
In the upper grades, Dr. Gratto emphasized continually updating information on swine flu on the school district’s website.
“We don’t need to live in fear of the swine flu, but we need to ask parents and students to practice common sense and take good precautions,” commented Dr. Gratto. These precautions, reported Dr. Gratto, include things like sneezing into your armpit instead of hands if you don’t have a tissue and washing hands or using an antibacterial gel after coughing or sneezing.
When a child becomes ill in school, Pulkingham or the Pierson Middle and High School nurse Barbara Schmitz, will provide the student with a face mask. The student will be asked to wait in the nurse’s office until they are picked up by a parent or guardian.
Dr. Gratto stressed that children with initial symptoms of the flu — including cough, runny nose, fever or sore throat — should remain at home until they are symptom free. Dr. Raia encourages parents to make their children wear face masks at home so as to not infect other family members. Children with pre-existing conditions, such as asthma, are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Swine flu is often debilitating, but Mary Ann Miller, a school board member and Sag Harbor parent, said most parents aren’t as concerned as they were in the spring.
“I think when swine flu first hit I heard a lot of concern from parents and many of us spoke about it together … I really subscribe to the recommendations of the Center for Disease Control and I feel so much of it is about education and getting people to understand about hygiene and cleanliness,” remarked Miller. “We will probably see another outbreak, but to me we need to watch out for the people who are on chemotherapy or who have [diseases] like HIV or AIDS, or have newborns.”
Dr. Raia expects a swine flu vaccine to be available to the public as early as October. The state department of health will distribute the vaccine to various locations around the state, including Dr. Raia’s office.