Fairmont, district brace for full assault by H1N1 virus

With the H1N1 flu virus spreading like fire through America’s schools, the Kettering School District is digging in for a long and grueling fight. The virus formerly known as swine flu has not yet made a big impact on Kettering schools, but as of Oct. 30, it had claimed the lives of 114 children across the country.

Kettering, along with many other Montgomery County districts, is trying to build fortifications against the H1N1 virus with the biggest mass-vaccination program since the 1950s.

“Montgomery County is providing H1N1 flu vaccinations to all students who have permission from their parents,” said Fairmont High School Principal Dan Von Handorf. The vaccination program will be held during school hours and is free of charge. It is meant to protect H1N1’s main target group: school-age children.

First line of defense

“The first wave of vaccines is tentatively planned to be made available to students in November,” said Jim Justice, the Kettering Director of Student Services, who has been pivotal in getting the word out about the vaccinations.

The district sent a letter to parents explaining the vaccination process along with permission slips. At FHS, the vaccinations will take two days, currently planned for Nov. 16 and 17. Fairmont Nurse Kathy Thomas says that once the school has an idea of how many students will participate, they will let staff know the plan for those days.

Kettering Superintendent Dr. James Schoenlein and other administrators know just how big an operation this will be. “This is a sensitive operation because it involves the health of students,” said Schoenlein. “It has to be done right and it needs to go smoothly.”

Vaccines will be administered by 5 to 8 certified district and county nurses at each site, and they’ll have emergency kits at each site in case of adverse reactions. “The government will closely monitor any reactions and will respond appropriately on a case by case basis,” said Justice, adding that the federal government will accept liability for any harmful reactions.

Influenza at large

“There is no way to accurately predict how the H1N1 virus will spread among our students,” said Justice. “The best thing we can do is try to minimize the effects of the flu virus by taking recommended precautions.”

Other schools in the Miami Valley are also trying to deal with the flu’s wrath. In Tipp City, absentee rates were so high that all extracurricular activities were canceled for a weekend in October in an effort to break the flu cycle. In addition, area residents have been shaken by the deaths of a 5-year-old Springboro boy and a freshman at Miami University, who both died of causes related to the H1N1 flu.

There have been thousands of laboratory-confirmed cases of H1N1 flu, but because the seasonal flu has not struck yet, doctors are assuming that anyone showing flu-like symptoms most likely has the H1N1 strain. Most people who contract the virus do not report the cases and are not hospitalized, so the number of confirmed cases doesn’t reflect the actual number of people with H1N1.

 To some Fairmont students and teachers, it already appears that H1N1 is having a major impact on attendance. However, Von Handorf says the absence rates at Fairmont in October have ranged from 6 to 10 percent, which is close to normal this time of year. One new issue the high school is working through is that students who do miss are missing for extended periods of time.

On Oct. 20, Schoenlein noted that absences throughout the district are slightly higher than normal for this time of year. “We are still at about 10 to 12 percent, which is the same percentage we usually see in the winter during seasonal flu,” he said.

Vaccine prompts mixed emotions

The Centers for Disease Control, which developed the H1N1 vaccine, estimates that 40 percent of students will take the step to get vaccinated, which reflects the concern expressed by some Fairmont students and parents.

Sophomore Katie Molnar thinks the vaccination program is a good idea. “But I don’t plan on getting vaccinated,” she said.

Molnar, like others, is afraid of the potential side effects from the vaccine. Her concern is understandable, given that officials have only recently completed testing the vaccine on humans. The CDC, however, maintains that the H1N1 vaccine is as safe as any flu vaccination. Every year brings a new influenza strain, which requires a new vaccine.

Many students like senior Kaiti Owens plan on getting vaccinated to give them an extra edge against the flu. “I really don’t want to get sick,” said Owens.

Von Handorf isn’t surprised by the range of responses. “We are expecting mixed emotions from the students and parents,” he said. “It’s a personal decision.”

Watching and waiting to see what happens next

Health officials say that H1N1 is much like the seasonal flu, but so far it has claimed far fewer lives. “The fear now is that the virus could mutate, and it certainly has the potential to do so,” said Dr. David Denka, a Dayton family physician. “Viruses mutate naturally and can develop immunity to vaccines.” There has been a report of type A H1N1 mutations in South America.

The CDC advises that all people, especially those between 6 months and 24 years old, get vaccinated against the virus so that it does not become more of a threat to the health of the nation.

Doctors say those who do get the flu should stay home to recover unless they have other health problems or complications. Most professionals feel that emergency room trips should be reserved for people with flu symptoms who also have difficulty breathing, a decrease in activity, persistent vomiting or diarrhea, lack of appetite and a change in skin color to pale blue or grey.

With H1N1 flu showing up in other area schools, many know that it’s probably only a matter of time until Kettering has to deal with it. Schoenlein recognizes the flu could cause plummeting attendance and says the district will cross that bridge when – and if – it needs to.

“We will not consider closing schools unless we have a shortage of substitute teachers, or our absences skyrocket, or we are advised to do so by the Montgomery County Health Department,” he said. “At the end of the day, our kids still have to learn what they need to learn.”

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