Thursday, April 30, 2009

St. Francis Prep Closed as Swine Flu Hits Queens

By Conor Greene

As the number of people across the globe infected with swine flu continues to grow, officials at St. Francis Preparatory High School – the epicenter of the outbreak in Queens – have closed the building until Monday in hopes of stemming the spread of the virus.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the number of infected people worldwide had risen to 132 confirmed cases in 11 countries. In the U.S there have been 91 reported cases in 10 different states, including 51 confirmed cases in New York State.

Among those infected was St. Francis Prep senior Toni Ann Abruzzino of Ozone Park. Her symptoms began with a “really bad cough” during the week and came to a head last Thursday night. “Thursday in school all the kids were going home sick and were all over the nurse’s office,” she said. “I went to my [softball] game and felt fine, but when it got home it really hit me. I stayed home from school on Friday, and there were rumors going around schools. Saturday was when it came out that swine flu was going around prep.”

She said it was “kind of shocking that it was at my school… It was scary but they said it was a mild case that we have.” Still, a mild case translated into several days of suffering for Toni Ann. “It’s just taking a while and has to run its course. It’s on and off, some moments I feel fine, then I get a headache. I’m just waiting for it to get over… I hope everyone gets better.”

Toni Ann is “very close friends” with some of the students who recently returned from Mexico, and had contact with one traveler before coming down with symptoms. “They didn’t get sick, so it’s weird how it all happened,” she said. “It’s not their fault. Of course it’s from Mexico so it’s kind of on them because they went, and they feel like people think it’s their fault but it’s not.”

During a conference call on Tuesday arranged by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills), St. Francis Headmaster Brother Conway said the decision to close until Monday was to give enough time for all cases to be identified and for students and faculty to recover. “The guidelines set by the Department of Health indicate that if we do add this time, it should provide adequate time for any students who are ill to recover,” he said. “Students are going to be told they need to keep up with their studies – this is not a vacation.”

“We’re hoping and praying that this passes quickly so next week we can get the students back into classes,” added Brother Conway. The process of cleaning the school, located at 6100 Francis Lewis Boulevard, began last Friday afternoon (April 24) and was completed by the end of the weekend.

The first sign that something was amiss came on Thursday, when about 100 students were absent, said Brother Conway. At the same time, “flocks of kids going to the nurse’s office, all reporting the same symptoms.” Because of the number of students complaining of the symptoms, the nurse, Mary Pappas, immediately contacted the city Board of Health to inform them of the possible outbreak.

Students continued to arrive at the nurse’s office the following day, with about 150 total visits between the two days. Brother Conwaycalled that number a “significant amount” compared to a typical school day. He defended the school’s decision to remain open Friday since students that day seemed to come down with symptoms later in the morning. “It wasn’t like they were lined up outside the nurse’s office as soon as we got here. I don’t know if closing on Friday would have done anything but I can’t predict that,” he said.

Brother Conway also responded to criticism that parents weren’t properly notified about the situation. “I don’t know how they could feel left in the dark,” adding that updates were constantly posted on the school’s Website. “I don’t think parents should feel they were left out of the loop.”

While there have been some reports of parents critical about the school’s response to the outbreak, Colleen Abruzzino said she doesn’t think officials could have done anything more. “They always do the right thing and really care about the students,” she said. “I don’t think they knew what they were dealing with either. I don’t think anybody knew until we realized these kids came from Mexico.”

According to a health alert issued Tuesday night by the city Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed 44 cases of swine influenza among students and staff at St. Francis Prep. The illnesses “appear to be no more severe than usual seasonal influenza, and all patients we know of are recovering, with the overwhelming majority having had mild illness.”

On Wednesday morning, Gov. David Paterson announced that three new “probable” cases of swine flu were identified upstate. In addition, two cases are suspected at two Brooklyn Catholic schools. As a result, St. Brigid in Bushwick and Good Shepherd in Marine Park will be closed for the remainder of the week.

Officials say that one of the Brooklyn students has a sibling at St. Francis Prep. The CDC is stressing that this is a “rapidly evolving situation” and urged residents to stay alert for updates.

The decision not to close all area schools drew criticism from Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) whose district includes St. Francis Prep. In the letter, sent to Mayor Bloomberg and Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden, Avella notes that “many parents are deeply concerned that schools in this area remain open despite the extensive and close connections between St. Francis Prep and the rest of the area schools.”

“While I am aware that the [city DOH] has recommended to keep schools open unless there are more than a few confirmed cases of swine flu in any particular school, many of these parents believe that the Department ofHealth and the Board of Education should close the public schools in northeastern Queens for the rest of the week in order to attempt to control the further spread of this virus,” wrote Avella. “Given the deep interconnectedness of St. Francis Prep and the rest of the schools in this area it seems only prudent that the City consider taking this step.”

The state Association of Homes and Services for the Aging is stressing that the elderly and frail population is especially at risk of contracting the flu. “If you
are not feeling well, we’re asking you to visit your doctor, not your dad in a nursing home or your grandmother who gets home care visits,” said Carl Young, NYAHSA president. “Our nursing homes and senior service staffs are following strict infection control programs, and the public’s compliance will be of enormous help.”

Meanwhile, officials at St. Francis Prep are continuing to navigate through this “very difficult time,” said Brother Conway. “With a very large school like this, we’re taking everything day by day and even moment by moment,” he said.

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