TOPICS > Health

In Colo., Arming Schools to Battle the Flu Virus

September 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
Loading the player...
Amid renewed warnings of a potential H1N1 flu virus outbreak, one Colorado school district is taking new precautionary steps. Tom Bearden reports.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight: how schools are preparing for the flu. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports for our Health Unit on how a Colorado school district is dealing with that threat. Our Health Unit is a partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

TOM BEARDEN: The new school year and football season are in full swing at the Douglas County school system. So far, it’s pretty much business as usual in this affluent county just south of Denver, except for an undercurrent of worry about the H1N1 virus, the so-called swine flu. Are you worried about the flu season or not?

MARY SENDELL, parent: Yes. Yes, I am. I’m just as much worried about them giving a germ to a friend or a teacher or their grandparents. We stayed away last weekend. So, yes, we’re worried.

TOM BEARDEN: Mary and Wade Sendell have two kids in the system. They have been trying to keep up to date on developments.

MARY SENDELL: They have a lot of information on the Web site about what to do and what to watch for and when to take — take your kids to the doctor and when not to. We should be more persistent with people keeping their kids home more often, because both kids have said that there’s a lot of sick people at school.

TOM BEARDEN: Federal health authorities predict that, in the coming months, the virus will make tens of millions of Americans sick, and that thousands will die from it. That’s not unusual. About 36,000 Americans die from the regular flu each year. What is unusual is that H1N1 targets school-age children, instead of the toddlers and elderly that are hit by the seasonal flu. Three dozen children have died in the U.S. from H1N1. Most had other underlying health problems.

WOMAN: Some of the schools have asked, after there’s been a case of the flu, could we have a deep cleaning?

Schools prep for flu season

TOM BEARDEN: This school system has been gearing up to meet the H1N1 threat for weeks. School nurses met recently to go over plans to try to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus, putting up signs to encourage frequent hand-washing, covering coughs with a bend of the elbow, instead of the hands...

WOMAN: David, what is going on?

TOM BEARDEN: ... and staying out of school if a child has a fever and a cough. They're also prepared to augment the cleaning routine in the schools with different products.

WOMAN: The Health Department is asking us to collect information regarding students that may have symptoms of the flu.

TOM BEARDEN: And they plan to work with the Tri-County Health Department to track an outbreak by gathering information on why students are absent -- fever, chills, achiness, all common symptoms of H1N1.

CELIA FLANIGAN, nursing consultant, Douglas County: I think it's very important as far as, you know, tracking, is the prevalence increasing, are we seeing it in more schools, what populations, the ages, you know, things like that. I think it will be important to gather that data.

WOMAN: At the request of our local health department, we are tracking the number of students who are absent due to flu-like symptoms.

TOM BEARDEN: All 70 schools in the district have changed the voice-mail message on their absentee phone lines. When parents call, the message asks for detailed information on symptoms. Local health officials will get a weekly report. The system's Web site is continuously updated to give parents as much information as they can about the virus. The Tri-County Health Department has had several meetings with school officials in all three counties that fall under their authority. Their hope is to keep disruption to a minimum. Dr. Tista Ghosh is the department's medical epidemiologist.

Learning disruptions

DR. TISTA GHOSH, epidemiologist, Tri-County Health Department, Colorado: Well, I think we don't want to disrupt school learning. At this point -- in the spring, what was happening was, we were just closing schools left and right, and the guidance was changing. And, really, I think, at this point, H1N1 and flu in general are going to be so widespread, that we can't possibly close every school.

TOM BEARDEN: Ghosh says, if the absentee rate doubles from the school's baseline, the department will step in. Sporting events could be canceled, and, if things get serious enough, schools could still be closed, but only as a last resort.

STEVE HERZOG, acting superintendent, Douglas County School District: We have had a team that has been meeting all summer, working with our local health care officials.

TOM BEARDEN: Steve Herzog is Douglas County's acting superintendent. He says the district has a plan to provide classroom materials for any students who have to stay home.

STEVE HERZOG: We're making plans that -- in the event that we have to deliver education in a different way, whether it be electronically. If we have to close schools for any period of time because of a large amount of students or staff being unable to attend, we -- we can extend the school year. If it's a longer period of time, we're going to have to look to the electronic delivery methodologies.

TOM BEARDEN: Most schools are using computer software that allows homework to be retrieved via the Internet, as well as daily updates from health officials. Schools can also send mass e-mails to parents. But officials worry that some parents might not heed the advice to keep sick kids home.

PAULETTE JOSWICK, assistant director for student wellness, Douglas County School District: The shipment of the vaccine is going to go out as soon as it's available.

TOM BEARDEN: Paulette Joswick is the assistant director for student wellness.

PAULETTE JOSWICK: That is a very serious concern and a very real concern. We have had parents say, I can't leave again. I will lose my job. People can't afford to lose their job. So, we understand that. But what they need to understand is that, as much as ever, its important that sick children are not in the school building.

COREY WISE, principal, Legend High School: What's up, Jessica?

Dealing with rumors

TOM BEARDEN: Corey Wise is the principal of Legend High, one of the fast-growing county's newest schools. He believes longstanding plans already in place to deal with annual flu outbreaks will also deal with H1N1. But he is concerned about controlling rumors.

COREY WISE: I think the more active we are with giving good factual information, understanding that it's just a flu, that you try to be clear and factual, so, that way, you don't have emotions running, and -- and, you know, the idea that it's -- it's more than what it really is -- is important.

CELIA FLANIGAN: I have had several staff members come to me and say that they had a report of, you know, a student with H1N1, and, then, upon further review, the student really was not diagnosed with H1N1. So, it's a matter of having to talk with the parents, and then get the information out, you know, once we figure out what's really going on. But I think a lot of people, you know, hear flu, like, their doctor says, well, your -- your child probably has the flu, and, so, they're automatically thinking, you know, H1N1.

TOM BEARDEN: Schools are also sending information packets home with students. But some parents we talked to haven't gotten the message yet.

MAN: I haven't heard anything. I haven't gotten any e-mails or letters home, no.

TOM BEARDEN: But school officials are also quick to say they don't want to overreact.

PAULETTE JOSWICK: Well, I do believe that this is something, much ado about not a whole lot. I think that, if I may say, that the media really fired up a frenzy at the time that it was first discovered -- and maybe rightfully so, because it was such an unknown. And we -- and we really received some very incorrect information from Mexico at that time about the number of deaths that proved not to have been true.

TOM BEARDEN: The district will provide students with free flu shots when the vaccines become available, both the regular seasonal shots next month, and, in November, the two separate doses for H1N1.

WOMAN: You did a good job. Wash your hands.

TOM BEARDEN: The Centers for Disease Control recommends that all children from six months to 18 years old, and young adults to age 24, be immunized.

DR. TISTA GHOSH: And that's one of the biggest challenges, I think, that we're going to face this year. Three different flu shots is extremely confusing. And, on top of that, there's different groups that are prioritized for different flu shots. So, senior citizens -- seniors are prioritized for seasonal flu vaccination, whereas, in -- with H1N1, they're not prioritized. So, to send that message out is a difficult one, and it's one that we're going to have to really work on.

TOM BEARDEN: It's a message that every school system and every health department will be trying to get across during the 2009 flu season.

JIM LEHRER: There is a lesson plan on how to protect against that flu at And you can also get more information on who should get the vaccine by following a link to the CDC's Web site.