City, schools gird for possible swine flu outbreak

September 8, 2009

By Staff

City and school officials are keeping close watch on information about the H1N1 flu from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the local public health agency.As the traditional fall and winter flu season nears, officials are preparing for other, possibly more severe H1N1, also knows as swine flu, outbreaks.

No H1N1 cases had been reported in Issaquah during a late-spring swine flu outbreak. Regardless, city and school officials took steps then to reassure the public as the number of cases rose and officials elsewhere closed schools as a precautionary measure.

“We have always known a pandemic was possible,” said Autumn Monahan, city public information officer.

To that end, city officials have taken steps to ensure personnel in key positions — such as the police, utilities and finance departments — have backups who can perform their duties should they fall ill. Issaquah City Jail officials also have a plan to keep enough officers on duty in the event of an outbreak.

Monahan said the city emergency management team worked closely with its counterparts at the county and state level so it would be ready in the event of a flu emergency.

Issaquah School District officials participated in several conferences with the state superintendent’s office and Public Health – Seattle & King County. The exercises helped local officials understand how the flu season may develop, said Sara Niegowski, district director of communications. The programs also helped the organizations develop a partnership for communication.

Prepared for a pandemic

Public Health – Seattle & King County is the lead authority on local swine flu cases. Officials there have stockpiled medications to treat the flu and embarked on an education campaign to raise awareness about the possibility of a pandemic. The agency has also posted a 20-minute training video for businesses, governments and schools on its Web site to help officials plan for a flu outbreak.

Local public health officials are also working with health care providers, hospitals and laboratories to spot potential H1N1 cases early.

In addition, the agency recommended common sense measures, such as hand washing, to help prevent the spread of flu.

Other measures — including shutdowns of public meetings and canceled meetings or classes — could be considered.

Monahan said City Hall had not been closed and City Council meetings had not been canceled in the past due to health scares.

Part of the prevention effort at City Hall, she said, includes signs encouraging hand washing throughout the building and ample antibacterial gel for employees to use.

She also emphasized the importance of business owners and residents taking steps to avoid the flu and control its spread in the event of an outbreak.

“While the city is getting prepared, we hope residents and businesses are getting prepared,” she said.

As part of the outreach effort, Monahan said the city Web site would be updated with information about swine flu.

In September 2006, city officials participated in a pandemic flu preparation exercise with the Seattle-King County public health agency and the University of Washington. Monahan said the exercise helped local officials plan for a flu emergency.

Businesses ready for possible outbreak

Greater Issaquah Chamber of Commerce CEO Matt Bott said he and chamber members are keeping close watch on H1N1. In addition to keeping in contact with city emergency management officials, Bott said he plans to include links on the chamber Web site to educate members about a flu outbreak.

Bott said local business owners are aware of the potential risks of swine flu, including the possibility of worker shortages if employees become infected. Restaurateurs, for example, have been encouraged to work with corporate offices and public health officials to prepare for a possible H1N1 outbreak.

“Good businesses, smart businesses are always on the lookout for things on the horizon,” Bott said.

Schools inform parents, students

Health and school officials also used the start of a new school year as an opportunity to educate parents and students.

District officials will participate in a citywide flu emergency drill later in the month, Niegowski said. Eastside Fire & Rescue will also participate in the exercise.

District officials distributed information via the district Web site and e-newsletters to parents explaining the importance of teaching students basic hygiene, like washing hands often and coughing into the sleeve of a shirt or their elbow, Niegowski said.

The letter also advises students, parent volunteers and employees to stay home if they are sick — that’s what absences and sick days were designed for, she said.

Last year, students at some Washington schools were caught with too many absences to graduate. Though none were reported in Issaquah, district officials are reminding students that absences should be reserved for legitimate reasons, Niegowski said.

Schools will honor legitimate absences, but students without legitimate absences or unexcused absences will not be given much leeway.

State education and health officials briefed school personnel statewide Aug. 31 about the H1N1 flu strain. State Superintendent Randy Dorn and state Department of Health officials co-hosted a statewide videoconference aimed at preparing school personnel for flu outbreaks.

“Under our current plan, we are advising schools to stay open,” Dorn said in a news release. “There are specific steps to take if a student or teacher becomes ill. But we don’t want a repeat of what happened last May, when schools in our state closed after the first reports of H1N1 surfaced.

“This fall, the severity of the virus will be the biggest factor in what measures our schools will take to maintain a continuity of education.”

Dorn said the final decision to close a school rests with district superintendents and school boards or a local public health official.

When the virus emerged in the spring, several schools elsewhere in King County were closed to prevent students and staffers from being exposed to H1N1. No Issaquah schools were closed during the spring outbreak.

“The message is,” Niegowski said, “if you aren’t feeling well, the best thing to do for yourself and for the system is to stay home and get better.”

Prevent swine flu

Red Cross officials encouraged parents to take flu-prevention steps now to keep their children healthy in the event of an H1N1 flu outbreak. Officials recommend the following tips:

Teach children proper and consistent hand-washing techniques.

Tell children to avoid sharing utensils, cups and bottles.

Show children how to cover their mouths and noses with a tissue when they cough or sneeze, and wash their hands afterward.

Teach them to cough or sneeze into their elbow or upper arm if they lack a tissue.

Teach children to keep hands away from their eyes, nose and mouth to keep germs from entering the body.

Source: American Red Cross

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Chantelle Lusebrink: 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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