Pandemic Flu School Action Guide Aids Planning Effort

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The Vermont Board of Health’s initial decision not to order schools closed on Sept. 27, 1918 was reversed seven days later, with — according to one newspaper account — “the disease raging with such violence on all side(s).” The disease was pandemic influenza.

A total of 43,735 cases of influenza were reported in the state between mid-September 1918 and February 1919, and 1,772 people, including healthy young school-aged children, died as a result of influenza complications. Many more cases, health officials estimate, went unreported.

“People should understand that that the threat of pandemic flu is a real and awesome threat,” said Ted Riggen, principal of Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, “and like all threats, it should be prepared for. It is not an improbable occurrence, and we have an opportunity now to give kids, staff and the larger community information that will lessen the effects of pandemic flu. It’s our collective responsibility to do that.”

A pandemic is a global disease outbreak that occurs when a new influenza virus emerges for which people have little or no immunity, and for which there is no vaccine.

Barre Town Middle School and Elementary School is using the new Pandemic Flu School Action Guide, created by the Vermont Department of Health in collaboration with the Vermont Department of Education, as a guiding document for its pandemic flu preparedness plans. The guide includes how to organize for pandemic response, promote healthy habits, communicate about pandemic flu, plan for essential services and continuity of student education and enhance disease surveillance and reporting.

The guide is available at the Health Department website in draft form at healthvermont.gov, then select pandemic flu. Public comment on the document is welcome throughout September, National Preparedness Month.

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Tanya Crawford-Stemple, RN, school nurse for Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, said planning is already underway in three categories:

* Primary prevention, such as emphasizing the importance and opportunities for hand washing and encouraging students, staff and parents to get their annual flu shots.

* Communication with parents about disaster preparedness and interpreting media messages about pandemic outbreaks.

* Infrastructure planning, such as assessing the building for adequate access to hand cleaning stations, and incorporating, through the science curriculum, habits and awareness to help students stay healthy.

All six school nurses working in the Barre School District will attend an influenza pandemic planning meeting on Sept. 22 led by an emergency preparedness specialist from the Health Department.

“We understand our role is important and that we need to quickly report any clusters of symptoms to the Health Department. This is something we do now if we notice a group of students who have strep throat — for example,” Crawford-Stemple said. “We also expect the Health Department to advise us on how to disseminate information, and we want them reporting back to us the bigger picture of what is going on statewide. Establishing these connections now, in advance of a pandemic, is absolutely critical to how we collectively will respond.”

According to Riggen, “Ultimately, we will rely on the state and even federal agencies to guide our response in relationship to our community. For example, we do not forsee U-61 as independently closing our schools for up to the seven weeks that may be necessary during a pandemic event.”

Planning is ongoing in Barre and will continue throughout the year. Perhaps the most important disease prevention measure for school children, according to school officials, is handwashing. Teaching school children to wash their hands — with soap and water for as long as it takes to sing the “A B C” song — is a habit that will help germs from spreading before, during, and after a pandemic. School officials are confident that a broader awareness of measures like this can be achieved through ongoing outreach to children in the classrooms, and to their parents through avenues such as the school newsletter.

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