School officials prepare for H1N1

BY HOLLY HINES | AUGUST 20, 2009 7:05 AM

Faculty and students in Iowa City will likely encounter at least one H1N1 flu infection this school year, county health officials said.

And some say UI research would play a positive role in addressing potential concerns.

Iowa City students and parents are fortunate to live near the UI, where researchers are looking into the H1N1 virus, said Dusti Cermak, the co-president of the Iowa City Districtwide Parents Organization.

Cermak — also an assistant to the president of the UI Foundation — hopes Iowa City School District officials would collaborate with the university in the event of an outbreak.

And with the possibility of H1N1 cases on the horizon, two countywide committees were recently formed to discuss policies and vaccinations.

The committees are focusing on prevention strategies, such as persuading parents to keep sick kids at home, said Tricia Kitzmann, the Johnson County Public Health department deputy director.

“Students should not go to school with fevers,” she said, and they should be fever-free and off of medications for 24 hours before returning to class.

Committee officials also plan to send out informational letters to families, push to make hand sanitizers available in classrooms, and provide media sources with lists of signs and symptoms, Kitzmann said.

The committees first met this month, and will continue to meet on a monthly basis.

Iowa City School District Superintendent Lane Plugge is focusing on prevention as well. District officials plan to increase student education about washing hands and covering sneezes.

They also plan to inform parents by putting information about the virus on the School District website, Plugge said.

However, even if students go to school with the virus, officials are unlikely to immediately consider closing the schools.

“Our goal is to keep schools open,” Plugge said. “[Closing schools] causes a ripple effect throughout the community.”

District officials are concerned younger children may be left at home alone if both parents work, he said.

And if parents miss work to take care of the children, their absence affects businesses in the community, Kitzmann noted.

“Closing a school doesn’t necessarily prevent a spread,” she said, and kids often go to the mall and spread the flu.

Community health remains a priority, Kitzmann said. The Johnson County Public Health Department would look into closing schools if it would better the health of the district, she said.

School District officials and public-health officials would work together to decide on a potential school closing.

If one or two students carry the virus to school, the Public Health Department would not be required to investigate, Kitzmann said.

Public-health officials examine the situation whenever at least 10 percent of students are absent from school in a single day, she said.

That doesn’t mean they are necessarily sick with any particular illness — that’s what the health experts would work to find out. They look into signs and symptoms and determine how long they’ve been present. They also find out who has been exposed in order to ensure that they receive care, Kitzmann said.

In the end, she said, the H1N1 virus is more of an inconvenience than a health concern, noting its symptoms are relatively mild.

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