Flu hits Mercer County schools

Cathy Decker/Staff reporter
Flu prevention is on the minds of a lot of public places, as evidenced by this sign seen at Mercer County Hospital's entrance.

Reports have come in about school absenteeism in the Mercer County School District. According to Superintendent Alan Boucher, schools report daily the number of students that are absent. On Friday, Oct. 23, there were 252 kids out as of 11 a.m. There were 124 students absent from the high school the day before. "There were nine teachers out today as well," said Boucher.

He said the district has 1,400 students, which means there was an 18 percent absenteeism rate for Friday. Apollo reported 47 absentees today, as of 11 a.m.

One thing that is not being cancelled on Friday night is the varsity football game with Stark County. This is the final regular season game for the school district, with playoffs beginning next week.

The Mercer County Health Department is working closely with area schools on tracking and helping with prevention.

"Our main focus is on getting the H1N1 Flu vaccination out to the public," says Jennifer Hammerlinck, one of Mercer County Health Department's two emergency preparedness coordinators.

She said the best preventative is to "wash your hands."

Last week she and her co-coordinator Julie VanMelkebeke, held a session on H1N1 with emergency responders, school officials, pharmacists, nursing home and hospital staff giving information on the status of the flu.

Unlike seasonal flu, H1N1 is out in the community now.

VanMelkebeke said that "yes," there have been confirmed cases of H1N1 in Mercer County. She was unable to give any numbers, because individuals are not given a test for the virus unless they are hospitalized.

"We're working closely with school nurses," said Hammerlinck. Schools are tracking absenteeism, by keeping records of the number of students that are kept at home and those sent home. They also are tracking symptoms. When parents phone into the school to report their child absent, they are forwarded to Becky Hyett, the school nurse. Her answering message asks the parent to not only report the student's name, but also what symptoms are observed.

 "We expect to see absenteeism," said Hammerlinck, "but it isn't always H1N1,"

Mercer County Hospital has a Stop Sign outside its main entrance. It's informational, giving out what symptoms to look for with H1N1 and seasonal flu.

There is a request to "protect the hospital staff and patients from becoming ill by not spreading viruses throughout the hospital."

"Flu virus is contagious!!" the sign reads.

H1N1 and Seasonal Flu symptoms are the same - fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, severe headache, severe fatigue, muscle aches and runny nose.

People are also requested to not enter the hospital if they have been exposed to anyone with known flu or pneumonia.

Doctors have been inundated with phone calls and visits this past week as well.

Dr, Travis Figanbaum, a physician at the Medical Associates Clinic in Aledo, says the clinic is trying to comply with the Center for Disease Control guidelines in treating the flu. "We're trying to contain flu patients as much as we can," he said.

Right now people showing flu symptoms are being assumed to have the H1N1 flu, according to Dr. Fignbaum. "H1N1 is here. We're seeing a lot of the symptoms and the most prevalent strain around is the H1N1. There is a test, but it's not a 100 percent test," he said.

They are specifically giving out advice to patients who have flu symptoms to stay home, rather than come into the office and "only treat for the H1N1 those patients who are at high risk of complications, which is a small percentage of the population."

He said that staff at the clinic has developed a screening technique with a checklist of what the severe symptoms are. "Those people we are saying should be seen."

"We're still early in the season to be seeing an outbreak of the Seasonal Flu, so we're intuitively putting it in the H1N1 category," he said.

For more on this story, see the Oct. 28 issue of The Times Record.