Thursday, May 21, 2009

Swine Flu Fears Renewed with City's First Death

By Conor Greene

A Queens assistant principal was laid to rest this week – the city’s first apparent swine flu victim – as the number of confirmed cases continues to rise.

With cases of the H1N1 virus mounting, officials scrambled over the past few days to shut schools that have apparent outbreaks of students with flu-like symptoms. At the same time, the Bloomberg administration has found itself defending its decision on to close all city public schools when the outbreak first hit Queens several weeks ago.

“We can’t stop the virus from spreading, unless you were to go wall yourself off and not have any contact with other humans,” said Mayor Bloomberg at a press conference earlier this week. “Our goal is to minimize the threat to those who are most at risk… We should not be surprised to see more serious illness.”

On Wednesday afternoon, family, friends and students gathered at Sinai Chapels in Fresh Meadows to pay their final respects to Mitchell Wiener, an assistant principal at IS 238 in Hollis. While city officials claim Wiener had a pre-existing health condition that contributed to his death on Sunday evening, the 55-year-old man’s family said he was in good health before he came down with flu-like symptoms.

Schools have been closed on a one-by-one basis, and some elected officials are now criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not taking broader action sooner. On Tuesday, Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Middle Village) called on Chancellor Joel Klein all schools in District 24, which she called “one of the city’s most infected areas.” The request came a day after Klein, teacher’s union president Randi Weingarten and other held a press conference at IS 73in Maspeth after 330 out of 1,700 students called out sick.

“Given the high number of student and teacher absences, coupled with the tragic deaths of Assistant Principal Wiener and the 16-month-old baby in Corona, I believe we must close all the schools in District 24… [to] allow cleaning crews enough time to sanitize the schools in order to stop the spread of the virus and to ease concerns of parents, teachers, students and administrators throughout the area,” wrote Crowley in a letter to Klein.

A DOE spokeswoman said on Wednesday the decision to close schools is “subjective” and made on a “case-by-case basis” as determined by the Department of Health. “The DOH recommends to the DOE to close the school, and once that happens we do so immediately,” she said. Having all kids stay home “is not necessarily the answer” and doesn’t provide assurances that “it is going to protect anyone else from getting it.”

Crowley also called on the DOH to open more testing centers for residents. “There needs to be enough free testing options available for constituents who are without healthcare in order to keep all of our community members safe,” she said.

The criticism of Bloomberg’s decision not to close more public schools was echoed by Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside). “It is absolutely clear that Mike Bloomberg and DOH failed to hear the concerns of parents and through their inaction allowed the spread of this virus,” he said. “As I suggested back in late April, a more aggressive approach should have been taken to close public schools in northeast Queens. There is no doubt in my mind that by taking preemptive measures we could have helped quell the number of cases within New York City.”

Around the city, hospital emergency rooms were flooded with residents suffering from flulike symptoms. The pediatric emergency room at Elmhurst Hospital Center had waits of up to 10 hours, and Queens Hospital Center erected a yellow tent in the parking lot to handle its overflow of patients.

Mayor Bloomberg stressed that all ill residents should receive medical help, regardless of their immigration status. “Whether you have health insurance coverage or your immigration status is in question, it doesn’t matter. We will not ask about that,” he said. “The only question that matters is, are you severely ill? And if you are, our hospitals are there to take care of you.”

While health officials determined that a 16-month-old Corona baby’s death was not caused by swine flu, the national death toll rose to eight with the death of a 44-year-old St. Louis man. Of the approximately 5,500 cases nationwide, fewer than 300 are in New York. In the past week, 19 city schools – mostly in Queens - have been ordered to close by the health department, and another five did so voluntarily. There are also at least four confirmed swine flu cases at Rikers Island.

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