Portland schools, athletics careful amid swine flu threat
PORTLAND — The School Department is taking extra precautions when it comes to sanitation and treatment of sick faculty and students in light of the so-called swine flu that is spreading around the globe.
Schools have stepped up the frequency of classroom cleaning and sterilization, while promoting frequent hand-washing and good respiratory hygiene. Athletes, meanwhile, have been instructed not to participate in pre- and post-game handshakes and are encouraged to carry disposable sanitary wipes or alcohol-based hand gels.
Portland interim Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Whynot-Vickers said parents should be prepared to make arrangements for child care in the event that any public schools must be closed.
Public health and education officials have recommended closing schools for up to 14 days where either a teacher or student tests positive for the swine flu. Last week, a school and a day-care center in York County were closed after children, who had contact with adults believed to have the swine flu, began showing flu-like symptoms.
Dr. Dora Anne Mills of the Maine Center for Disease Control said on Monday that caution is particularly being urged in schools and day-care centers, since children – as with the common, seasonal flu – are more apt to be carriers of the H1N1 virus.
"Kids nationally and in Mexico are getting (H1N1) at a much higher rate," Mills said. "We know that children are the transmitters of seasonal flu in a community."
Mills said it's important to remain extra vigilant because of the swine flu's unique genetic characteristics and how rapidly it is spreading throughout the U.S. and international communities. Swine flu contains genetic traits found in humans, pigs and birds.
The World Health Organization on Monday reported 985 confirmed cases of swine flu in 20 countries. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported 286 confirmed cases in 36 states. Twenty-five deaths have been attributed to swine flu in Mexico and a Mexican child died in Texas.
"This isn't going to blow over in a week or two," Mills said, noting the virus could recirculate and return months from now in a more potent form. "It's circling around the globe."
As of Monday afternoon, Mills said there were seven highly probably cases of swine flu in Maine among more than 800 samples tested. One of those probable cases in York County was confirmed as H1N1 on Monday by the U.S. CDC. Mills, noting that 10 cases of seasonal flu have also been found statewide and despite a Portland television news report to the contrary, said there are still no probable H1N1 cases in Cumberland County.
Mills said the four highly probable cases were detected in people who had traveled out of state, but not to Mexico. Another highly probable case seems to have been contracted from one of the four people who traveled out of state. The causes of the other two highly probable cases are still being investigated, she said.
Mills said the seven cases identified in York, Kennebec and Penobscot counties have been relatively mild, but other more severe cases requiring hospitalization have been found elsewhere in the U.S. Although no one locally has been hospitalized, some have been treated with anti-viral medication.
Meanwhile, Portland school officials are reminding students and faculty to practice good respiratory hygiene, since the swine flu can be passed much like a seasonal flu.
Amanda Rowe, Portland school nurse coordinator, said several students have been kept home or sent home with flu-like symptoms. So far, all tests for the swine flu have come back negative, she said.
"It's important for parents to know that we don't have a documented case in the Portland schools," Rowe said.
More than a dozen parents have called to express serious concerns about sending their children to school, Rowe said. While only a few have chosen to keep their children at home, she said many parents are simply checking in to see what the schools are doing to protect their children, like emphasizing good hygiene and sending sick students home for 24 to 48 hours.
"Usually, when they hear what we're doing, they feel better," Rowe said, noting there has been no spike in student absences. "I think (parents) want to hear there is someone monitoring children who are ill."
Meanwhile, athletic teams have also temporarily instituted measures to reduce the swine flu risk. Those include banning pre- and post-game handshakes and providing disposable cups and water to visiting teams. Also, teams are encouraged to carry sanitary wipes and to thoroughly sanitize all facilities.
Dr. Mills said she proud of the way Mainers have responded to the swine flu threat.
"Mainers have reacted with prudence," she said, "and prudence is what is needed now."