Last Thursday, Sag Harbor School Superintendent Dr. John Gratto learned that two Pierson students had been positively diagnosed with swine flu — or H1N1. Despite the confirmed cases of swine flu, Dr. Gratto said the Suffolk County Department of Health hadn’t advised to close down the school. In a letter sent out to parents and guardians on Thursday, Dr. Gratto said “The Suffolk County Department of Health stated, ‘The severity of H1N1 is less than originally thought and the advice is to treat as a seasonal flu.’” He asked the community “not to be alarmed” by the confirmed cases and added that the school nurses were monitoring the student’s health.
“We have almost 900 students … [the two swine flu cases] are hardly an epidemic,” reported Dr. Gratto during a later interview. “It is a flu that is treatable.”
In fact, the Pierson Middle/High School nurse Barbara Schmitz said the two students, a tenth grader and a twelfth grader, both recovered and recently returned to school, after getting clearance from their physician, Dr. Mark Kot.
Local health experts maintain that swine flu is akin to the seasonal flu in terms of symptoms and virulence, but as of late the virus has aggressively spread throughout the county and the country.
“The swine flu is rampant on the East End of Long Island. I have seen around 50 cases so far,” reported Southampton-based physician Dr. Kot, who treated both Pierson students. As of Monday, June 15, there have been 81 cases of swine flu in Suffolk County, two of which resulted in death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 1,160 confirmed cases of swine flu in New York state — resulting in 13 deaths. On the same day that Dr. Gratto learned of the two students diagnosed with swine flu, the World Health Organization announced that the flu had reached pandemic levels and had spread to 74 countries.
Dr. Kot, however, contends the common seasonal flu is far more deadly than swine flu. He added that swine flu shows the same symptoms as the seasonal flu, including fever, chills, gastrointestinal and joint pains.
“[Swine flu] is basically an influenza virus … We treat it with the same medication [the anti-viral drug Tamiflu]. It is a relatively mild form of influenza,” Dr. Kot explained.
As with the seasonal flu, he noted the virus can be fatal for those with comprised or underdeveloped immune systems, including the elderly, children under five and people with underlying health conditions. The swine flu is remarkable, said Dr. Kot, because it is a new flu mutation.
“It is a new virus that jumped from the swine to the human population. That is why there was so much concern initially,” noted Dr. Kot.
So far, the immediate school districts surrounding Sag Harbor haven’t reported any confirmed cases of swine flu, but have noted an increase in students absent from school due to flu-like symptoms.
In a June 5 letter to the Springs School District community, principal Eric Casale said a student of the Eastern Suffolk BOCES in Westhampton tested positive for swine flu, though the student wasn’t from Springs.
The Sag Harbor school physician, Dr. Gail Schoenfeld of East End Pediatrics, reported that several Sag Harbor students have recently shown flu-like symptoms, but no other confirmed cases have yet been announced.
Dr. Gratto maintains the school is taking the appropriate measures to safeguard the health of district students. He noted that the two students were already pulled out of school before they were positively diagnosed with the virus. The school is thoroughly cleaned each night, said Dr. Gratto, and in his Thursday letter to the school community he encouraged children to practice good hygiene, including regularly washing hands and employing sneezing and coughing etiquette. Dr. Gratto added that faculty and students displaying signs of the flu should stay home for at least seven days after the first initial symptoms, since the incubation period of the virus is between one to seven days.
One unique facet of the swine flu is its virulence during the warmer months. Usually, the seasonal flu is prevalent during the winter.
“It’s God’s will. No one knows why it is spreading now,” said Dr. Kot. “And no one knows what is going to happen next year.”