Students in the Juneau school system will hear "cover your cough" and "wash your hands" a lot more this year as the district takes precautions against an expected tough flu season.
Like many schools across the country, the district is preparing for a potential outbreak of the H1N1 virus, also known as swine flu, as the flu season approaches and kids are in more social situations at school.
"Certainly we're concerned," said Student Services Director Dave Newton.
Newton met with school nurses two weeks ago and decided to implement initial precautions outlined in a district pandemic plan that was developed last spring.
The district will start the school year Monday implementing the plan at Level 1, which calls for sanitation measures like disinfecting desks and door knobs more often and educating students and staff about how to prevent spreading the flu.
The district's plan, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has incremental levels that would be put in place as the number of cases increases in Juneau.
If that happens, the district might decide to tighten up community access to school or cancel large gatherings like assemblies and school trips, Newton said. A final level would call for canceling classes.
"A lot of our guidance will come from the CDC and the Alaska epidemiologist," Newton said of how the district would decide when to ratchet up the plan.
The number of cases of H1N1 is decreasing in the U.S., but that is expected to change in the near future, state epidemiologist Dr. Joe McLaughlin said.
"Influenza is most transmissible during the winter months and that's why we see a seasonal pattern for the virus," McLaughlin said.
Alaska as of Wednesday reported 400 confirmed cases of H1N1, but the number of confirmed cases is grossly underrepresented across the nation because not everyone is tested for the virus.
McLaughlin said the actual number of cases in Alaska is likely to be in the thousands.
One Alaskan death has been reported.
Half of the cases in the U.S. are among people ages 5 to 24, a fact that has created concern for school districts across the nation.
Identifying sick kids and keeping them home is an important part of preventing the spread of the flu, McLaughlin said.
"Children and staff should stay home when they're sick for at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever or signs of fever," he said.
Other symptoms are cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. A significant number of people who have been infected with this virus also have reported diarrhea and vomiting.
The district plans to isolate children who show signs of being sick until they can be picked up from school.
Kate Slotnick, nurse manager at the Juneau Public Health Center, said parents should expect their kids will be exposed and get sick, needing at least three to five days of care.
"Prepare yourself for the fact you may need to take time off work and be home with a sick child, that very likely may happen to you," Slotnick advised parents.
A vaccine is being developed and should be available by mid-October.
Newton said he is working to provide vaccinations in schools, but he didn't know how much the city can get.
Contact reporter Kim marquis at 523-2279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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