Health Agent To Community- ‘We Have A Plan In Place For H1N1’
By: Mary Stanley
The public’s concern about the H1N1 virus has had the town’s school department, health department, and local pediatricians’ telephones ringing off the hook in recent weeks. Rumors have fed these concerns. Last week, there were rumors floating around that more than 200 Sandwich students from one 7th-grade class were home sick with the H1N1 virus. Another story had the school district poised to close down one of its school buildings so it could be disinfected. Neither of these stories proved true.
Town officials have been working hard to quell unreasonable fears and to show that they are well prepared—better than some towns—to deal with H1N1.
“We have a plan in place. We are going through the state’s priority list and vaccinating those at the top of that list,” said Health Agent David B. Mason.
Mr. Mason said the first batch of vaccine arrived three weeks ago and that batch was offered to pregnant women, a priority population.
The second batch, he said, came in just last week and that has been offered to children who have chronic illnesses or respiratory issues, such as asthma.
“We had the school nurses identify students who are considered high risk and sent letters home to their parents informing them that they could call the town’s health nurse to schedule and appointment for the vaccination,” Mr. Mason said.
People who fall into these categories are either scheduling their appointments now or have already received their inoculations.
The next batch of vaccine, he said, will be offered to parents who have children younger than 6 months old.
Once that segment of the population gets its vaccines, the next batch that comes in will be offered to all school-age children, 5 years old to 18 years old, who are residents of Sandwich.
“We can begin vaccinating that population as soon as we receive a large enough supply of the vaccine. The full amount of vaccine could be here by the end of November,” Mr. Mason said.
Clinics will be held in the evening or after school to vaccinate the children.
“Any child who lives in town, whether they attend Sandwich schools or another school, is eligible to attend the clinic,” he said.
Mr. Mason said Sandwich is actually ahead of other towns in terms of pushing out this vaccine to those at the top of the priority list.
“Each Friday, we receive notification from the state of how much vaccine we will receive the following week and, on Monday, we meet with the school nurses to determine who we are targeting for the vaccination. Every decision we make depends on the amount of vaccine we are receiving,” he said.
While the town is offering the vaccination, some have opted to have their children receive the vaccine at their pediatrician’s office and that has medical staff scrambling to field phone calls from parents seeking to schedule an appointment or inquire where they are on the waiting list.
“To say that we are inundated with phone calls is an understatement. We are fielding 170 calls per hour,” said Dr. Roshann Hooshmand of Cape Cod Pediatrics in Forestdale.
With a limited supply of the vaccine, Dr. Hooshmand said the office has a waiting list of patients who want to receive the vaccination.
“We have a waiting list with 800 names on it,” she said.
The biggest challenges with this particular vaccination has been that the supply has fallen far short of the demand. Mr. Mason said that because the virus is new, there has not been ample time to create the virus in a laboratory to make the vaccine. With limited supplies of the vaccine trickling into municipalities and doctors’ offices from the state, those batches must be doled out first to people who are high on the priority list.
Mr. Mason said unlike pediatrician offices which treat only children, he is required to offer his supply to the overall population of the town. Because supply is limited, he must follow the Center for Disease Control’s priority list when offering this vaccination.
It is not only the health department and pediatricians’ offices who are receiving a high number of phone calls. School nurses have been busy attending to students who have come down with the flu or answering questions from parents who call asking when it is safe to send their child back to school.
“We are monitoring attendance very closely, looking for clusters. There are flu cases in each of the four school buildings,” said Celine M. Hardy, nurse leader for the school district.
On Monday of this week, Ms. Hardy said the overall attendance rate at the four schools was 92 percent, which is down from the previous week’s attendance rate of 94 percent. She said these are rates that the school department typically sees in the months of January and February.
“We had one building last week with an attendance rate of 87 percent,” Ms. Hardy said.
She added that it is unlikely that all the absences are due to H1N1.
“There could be a number of students out for reasons other than the flu,” she said.
According to Ms. Hardy, the school department’s nursing staff is working not only to track student absences but also teacher absences. She said for the most part, teacher attendance has been good. Although a few have reported having the flu, some are staying home to care for a child with the flu.
Ms. Hardy said this is going to be a difficult year with respect to flu-related absences.
“We are going to get hit twice. In about six weeks, we are going to start seeing absences due to the seasonal flu virus,” she said.
She and Mr. Mason meet once a week to discuss the school’s attendance rate in an effort to stay on top of what is happening and how widespread the virus may be.
Ms. Hardy said if a child is out with symptoms of the flu, which include fever and sore throat, most likely the strain of flu that the child has is the H1N1 virus.
According to Ms. Hardy, doctors’ offices are not testing specifically for this virus. However, if a patient goes to the hospital, staff there will test to see whether the strain is a Type A virus, which is the H1N1, or whether it is a Type B virus, which is the traditional seasonal flu.
“None of the tests have come back as the Type B; so if a child has the flu, it is most likely H1N1,” she said.
Ms. Hardy said every year, people suffer complications from the regular seasonal flu. This year is different, however, because the H1N1 virus is hitting a different population of people, specifically children.
“In most cases, this flu is not much different than the seasonal flu. There have been many children who have had the flu and are well again after four to five days,” she said.
Ms. Hardy said the school department has taken precautions to try to prevent the spread of the virus, including putting extra bottles of hand sanitizers in classrooms not equipped with a sink and putting disinfectants in the classrooms so that teachers can wash down desks and other items in the classroom.
“It’s a coordinated effort,” Ms. Hardy said.
To prevent further spread of the flu, Ms. Hardy is recommending that any child who has fever and a sore throat be kept home from school and that children remain home until they have gone one full day without fever.
“We are recommending that children be free of fever for at least 24 hours without having taken any fever-reducing medication,” Ms. Hardy said.
Anyone who has a child with a chronic illness or a respiratory-related disease and needs the vaccination, should contact the town’s health nurse at 508-833-8020.
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