Thursday, May 7, 2009

Schools Reopen in Wake of Swine Flu Outbreak

By Conor Greene

The two Queens schools closed by the swine flu outbreak reopened this week as life returns to normal for students and residents across the borough.

While more than 1,000 city residents reported symptoms associated with swine flu since the outbreak occurred, there have been 73 confirmed cases across the city, according to health officials. In addition, an intensive investigation of the newly identified virus, also known as H1N1 shows that cases in the city continue to be mild.

“We have looked daily at every hospital and every intensive care unit in the city within the past 10 days and we have yet to find a single patient with severe illness from H1N1,” said city Health Department Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden.

Frieden noted that the health department’s case count doesn’t reflect the actual number of citywide infections since those with mild symptoms don’t need to be tested for the virus. For example a survey completed by students and staff at St. Francis Prep High School – the epicenter of the outbreak in Queens – identified more than 1,000 likely cases, while there were just 69 confirmed cases there.

“The good news is that it is no more serious than a seasonal flu,” said Frieden on Monday at a news conference at St. Francis, where he was joined by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senate Majority Leader Malcolm Smith to welcome back the Fresh Meadow school’s 2,700 students. A total of 204 students had called out sick on Monday, but the majority stayed home just to be on the safe side, according to Headmaster Brother Leonard Conway. He said the students “have a lot of work to do” to make up for lost time.

“The important thing is for students and staff and for all New Yorkers across the city to continue to be calm and confident,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “I think weshould all go about our business.” He said the school staff’s response to the outbreak, which occurred after students returned from a trip to Mexico, “really is a good role model for all of us.” Using the school’s public address system, he welcomed the students back and thanked them for their patience.

In a letter sent home to parents, Conway stressed the need to “remain vigilant” and return to school only when healthy. He noted that while the virus only spread through person to person contact, the school has been completely sanitized.

Also reopening on Monday were St. Brigid’s in Bushwick, Good Shepherd in Marine Park and Bishop Kearney in Bensonhurst. In addition to the cases at St. Francis, there were also five confirmed cases at PS 177, which was set to reopen on Wednesday. On Long Island, the Deer Park Union Free School District is closed until May 10 as a result of three probable swine flu cases among students there.

Students returning to Prep were greeted by news reporters from outlets across the city and world. Some, like senior Kenny Mathieu, told the Daily News that he was glad to have the week off school, even thought it will be made up at the end of the school year. “It was like an extra spring break,” the 17-year-old said. Other, like Marie Baitto, said they were taking extra precautions just to be sure. “I have a little hand sanitizer with me. I’m not going to buy any of the food. I brought my own lunch,” she said.

In the aftermath of the outbreak, lawmakers are taking steps to help prevent residents from falling victim to individuals and companies that take advantage of the public’s fear. The U.S Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission are warning the public to be wary of Internet sites and other promotions for products that claim to diagnose, prevent, mitigate, treat or cure swine flu virus. The only two antiviral drugs approved by the FDA for treatment of this virus are Tamiflu and Relenza. Consumers are urged to contact their health care providers or legitimate medical supply services if they have questions or concerns about medical products or personal protective equipment.

In addition, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Forest Hills), whose district accounts for more than one third of all confirmed cases within the county, has called on airlines to waive change fees for passengers with flu symptoms. He argued that sickened passengers are simply following the rules by not flying and says the fee - which averages $117 for domestic flights and $175 for international travel and can be as much as $250 - should be lifted until the public health emergency is lifted.

“It’s bad enough to suffer through symptoms of this virus. But punishing those who follow the rules and choose not to travel adds insult to injury,” said Weiner. “Waiving these fees is a simple solution and will go a long way towards easing the burden of passengers who do the right thing.”

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