Swine Flu May Be Behind 191 Illnesses at School

Nearly 1 in 5 pupils at a Nebraska high school is absent with flu-like symptoms.

September 2, 2009, 9:35 AM

Sept. 3, 2009— -- After spiking to more than 21 percent, the proportion of students at Pius X, a Catholic high school in Lincoln, Neb., who missed class with flu-like symptoms settled slightly on Thursday.

The number of absent students rose to 229 on Wednesday before settling to 191 on Thursday, according to school officials. Of those absent, 13 have been confirmed to have swine flu -- but more confirmed cases are expected.

The surge in illnesses first became apparents at the end of the school day on Monday, when Principal Tom Korta found himself looking at a list of 106 names – all students who had called in sick. By Tuesday, the number of absent students had reached 182 before rising even higher on Wednesday.

"Our rate of kids being sent home from sick room dropped," Korta said on Thursday, adding that only 10 students left school during the day with flu symptoms -- a drop from days past.

"We found out that pretty common [symptoms] were fever, sore throat, body aches," Korta said. "That's when we started realizing that something's going on here."

Realizing this might be the biggest swine flu outbreak the state of Nebraska has seen so far, the principal immediately started making calls: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the county health department, the state epidemiologist.

Korta sent out his weekly newsletter, warning parents and staff that close to one-fifth of the Pius X's 1,065 students may have H1N1. Then he spread the news to local Catholic elementary schools to caution his students' younger siblings.

Pius X administration didn't see the swine flu coming this fall and hadn't really taken any extraordinary precautions, Korta said. The school didn't even keep a nurse on staff daily.

"In early spring we were on high alert that if we aware of any cases there was discussion of possibly dismissing school," he said, adding that up until this latest outbreak, the flu has been "downgraded in terms of it as a general fear."

Tuesday late afternoon after the school was dismissed, an assistant in the administration office sighed: "Thank God, the nurse could come in."

The common drill for those not feeling well at school used to be stopping by the front desk to inform the office staff. With a continuous string of students coming in to report flu-like symptoms, the administration converted a room with copy machines into a "sick room" and lined hallways with vividly colored posters: "SICK? Report to the ISS room."

As the day was winding down, the parade of parents and coming in to pick up the sick students' homework had dwindled. One of them was Rhonda Laswell, whose daughter has been sick for five days.

Possible Swine Flu Disrupts Student Schedules

Laswell's daughter, Taylor, really wants to go back to school, Laswell said. Yet one thing worries Taylor: Everyone at school may blame her – jokingly, of course – for starting a swine flu outbreak.

The 16-year-old junior was one of the first at Pius X to get an official diagnosis of H1N1. "She was just very unable to move much" on Friday, Laswell said. "She had said that some of her friends were sick." A generally healthy basketball player, Taylor did luck out with milder symptoms, though: cough and chills.

"A lot of other people panicked about my daughter and would ask her, 'Are you going to die?'" Laswell said. "And that kind of made me think, okay... they are more worried about it than I felt I needed to be."

She felt no reason to panic, Laswell explained. Taylor didn't have other health-related conditions, and her doctor prescribed the simple flu treatment instructions: stay home, rest and drink fluids. Taylor's two siblings – an 11-year-old and a Pius X grad – poke fun at her, warning her to stay away, but have avoided the virus.

So far only one Pius X teacher has shown flu symptoms, coming to school on Monday, Korta said, and planning "to toughen it out." Administrators shooed the teacher back home.

The principal said he considers complete school dismissal out of question – unless many more teachers get sick. "If you get to a point where you are not being able to staff your classes, that is a good reason to close the school," he said, adding that Pius X isn't in need of such a "significant step" yet.

Korta couldn't estimate how many absent students it would take to force him to lock down the school. "I do think there is an importance in offering some normalcy through something like this," he explained. "So, to the extent that we feel we can maintain a normal day-to-day education, we're certainly going to do that."

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