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Back to school means free flu vaccinations for Portland students

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Back to school means free flu vaccinations for Portland students

PORTLAND — When students return to schools on Sept. 3, they will be welcomed back with an unprecedented immunization effort to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus, known as the swine flu.

Portland schools will offer free immunizations this fall in a concerted effort to reduce the looming flu threat, which many health experts predict will surge over the winter.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, Maine had 354 confirmed H1N1 cases as of Aug. 19, including 19 people hospitalized and one death. Sixty percent of Maine's cases were people under 25 years old. However, not everyone who is infected is tested for the virus.  

Portland Public Health and school nurses will team up with Maine Medical Center, Family Medicine Clinic and Martin's Point to dispatch more than 140 trained volunteers to the city's 16 school buildings in October to administer seasonal flu shots to staff and students.

Parents must sign a permission slip, which will be included in a packet given to students during the first two weeks of classes, for their children to receive the free vaccinations.

School nurse coordinator Amanda Rowe said the district also expects to receive vaccination supplies directly aimed at the H1N1 virus, which emerged in the spring and alarmed health officials because it contained both swine and avian genetic traits. The new vaccination, Rowe said, may not be available until November.

Rowe said the vaccination efforts are unprecedented in Portland schools.

"This is really a school-wide effort aimed at all grade levels," she said. "We have not done anything on this grand a scale since I've been here, which is 20 years."

Rowe said janitors are also being trained to take more time cleaning point-of-contact surfaces like desks and door knobs. Also, automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers are being installed in the middle and high schools.  

"Since elementary schools have sinks in almost every classroom, we're going to emphasize hand-washing with those students," Rowe said. 

School nurses and staff will monitor children who become sick. Anyone with respiratory symptoms and a fever of more than 100 degrees will be sent home for at least 24 hours, Rowe said, so parents should plan for potentially extended absences. 

Parents are also encouraged to teach their children about the importance of good hygiene before sending them to school, a breeding ground for the virus. Those good practices include frequent hand washing and coughing or sneezing into one's own shirt sleeve or tissue.

Although it's unclear how severe this year's flu season will be, Rowe said she is confident the schools are doing everything possible to protect students and the community. The trick will be walking the line between maintaining a sense of normalcy for the students while increasing the vigilance of staff. 

"Our primary mission here is eduction," Rowe said. "We're going to try to keep things as low key and normal for the kids as we possibly can. All the while, we're going to be really vigilant and watching our absentee rate for any little spikes. The school nurses really are key here."

Students at Portland High School will be immunized on Oct. 5, followed by King Middle School and Clifford Elementary School on Oct 6. Moore Middle School and Lyseth Elementary School immunizations will take place on Oct. 7 and East End Community School and Reiche Elementary School students will be immunized Oct. 8, followed by Casco Bay High School and Hall Elementary School on Oct. 9. 

Students at Deering High School will be immunized Oct. 13, followed by Lincoln Middle School and Longfellow Elementary School on Oct. 14. Riverton and Presumpscot elementary school immunizations will take place on Oct. 15 and West and Peaks Island schools will take place on Oct. 16.

Once available, the new H1N1 vaccine will be administered according to guidelines set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Students between the ages of 6 months and 24 years old are among the priority groups for the new vaccine.

The information packet to be distributed to students will be available online at PortlandSchools.org

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net