Swine flu puts schools in diocese on alert

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BRISTOL— As close to 16,000 Rhode Island Catholic School students begin a new academic year, one of the first topics addressed is the prevention of the H1N1 virus, known as swine flu. In preparation for a potential surge of the virus this fall, school officials are trying to create germ-free atmospheres to minimize any outbreaks.

Dr. Camille Brown, diocesan assistant superintendent of schools, said that one of the best ways to keep the students healthy is to stay educated about the virus and its prevention.

“The CDC expects the flu to infect 30 percent of our population,” said Brown. "The best thing for us is to have this education and help our young people is through the schools. We need to know exactly what this H1N1 virus is that we have to prepare for."

At the present time, the Rhode Island Department of Health is reporting 203 confirmed cases of swine flu in the state. The virus first made its appearance in the United States this past spring, but school and health officials anticipate a fall and winter wave of the virus. No cases have been reported in Catholic Schools.

Principal of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel School in Bristol Religious Teachers Fillippini Sister Carmela Santarsiero explained that the administration works hard to keep parents well informed on swine flu precautions by sending home all Department of Health notices that come to the school.

“I think we are well prepared here,” Sister Santarsiero said.

She explained that hand sanitizing dispensers are a vital school staple and available in the faculty room, classrooms and lavatories.

"The children use the dispensers before they eat lunch and after they use the bathroom" said Sister Santarsiero. "They are also taught how to rub the substance into their hands and the teachers are there to observe them and instruct them on hygiene.”

One recommendation the Department of Health offered and shared by school administration in protecting against swine flu is by drinking plenty of fluids.

"We recommend that the parents send in water bottles or a cup so the children do not have to drink from the water fountains," said Sister Santarsiero

Principal of St. Margaret School in East Providence John Rezendes emphasized the school’s staff is also very active in preventing the spread of the virus.

“We have hand sanitizers in each classroom and we had a cleaning company come in and clean classrooms, door knobs, railings, and everything that we could think of to start the year off right,” said Rezendes. “I will also be going into the classrooms and talking about the individual steps the students need to take such as staying home when they are not well.”

Annemarie Beardsworth, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Health, said that many of the steps that DOH officials are asking the schools to implement are the same preventions from the spring.

“We are asking them to resume these activities,” Beardsworth said.

These suggestions include having administrators and teachers remind students to wash their hands and to cough and sneeze into their elbows. The Department of Health is also requiring schools to submit daily absentee reports to monitor abnormal absenteeism rates in specific school communities.

“When there is a spike in absenteeism, we know that something may be brewing in the school,” said Beardsworth, who explained that anyone who has influenza-like symptoms needs to stay home, rest, and keep hydrated until the affected person’s body temperature returns to normal for at least 24-hours after the fever has subsided.

Brown emphasized that doctors do not want everybody running to their office if they have the flu and that they should stay home and rest. Those seeking wellness visits such as physicals could easily be infecting by the ill. She also said that a school-wide vaccination program will effectively help.

"There are plenty of well children coming in for visits and physicals," she said. "The pediatricians are saying that they cannot handle the overflow of all these kids.”

The Rhode Island Department Health expects that a swine flu vaccine will be available to Rhode Islanders sometime next month.

“In Rhode Island we are expecting our shipment of the vaccine sometime in October,” Beardsworth said. “When we do get our initial shipment, pregnant women and children are the first priority.”

Brown explained that the federal government plans on supplying all the vaccines and syringes to the school nurses during the customary vaccination period between October and December. This includes private schools such as the 45 Catholic schools across the state.

“The main target group for the virus is 16 months to 24 years and that encompasses all of our schools,” said Brown. “A consent form will go out to all the parents and if they want their child to have their immunization in the schools, they can send it back and the nurses will perform the vaccination.”

The Rhode Island Department of Health held a press conference today to present information on the swine flu vaccine, including when and where it will be available.

“We want to keep schools open,” said Brown. “We want to keep the information going so it’s important to stay tuned and stay informed. The administrators need to get ready, be practical, and stay calm. It’s important to be informed ahead of time, not when you are in the middle of the crisis.”