Vaccines trickle in as swine flu hits schools

ADDISON COUNTY — Earlier this week, around 300 students at Mary Hogan Elementary School in Middlebury lined up for the H1N1 influenza vaccine, as some of the first doses of the vaccine trickled into Vermont.
The clinic came after last week’s announcement from the Vermont Department of Health that H1N1, informally dubbed the “swine flu,” had reached widespread levels in the state. This increased level of illness had been slower to hit New England than other parts of the country.
But just as the first vaccination clinics got under way, other schools in the state faced news that their own scheduled clinics will need to be postponed because initial supplies of the H1N1 vaccine are smaller than expected.
The Mary Hogan clinic was one of roughly 30 clinics held in elementary schools in Vermont this week. About 400 Vermont elementary schools have expressed interest in holding the H1N1 clinics.
Meanwhile, as schools wait for the vaccine to arrive, school administrators are grappling with some instances of increased absenteeism due to illness. In some cases, those numbers aren’t especially high yet, though nurses warn that flu season won’t peak until January or February.
At Mary Hogan, where school nurse Ursula Langfeldt said the vaccine was administered to roughly three-quarters of the student body, Langfeldt said the school has seen a few children out with flu-like illness, but not a huge number.
The news from other schools in the region — like Otter Valley Union High School — is similar.
“Knock on wood,” said OVUHS Principal Dana Cole-Levesque, after reporting that the Brandon school hasn’t been hard-hit by flu-like illnesses yet.
Meanwhile in Bristol, Principal Andy Kepes said Mt. Abraham Union High School just this week has started to notice more students absent due to illness. Of the school’s roughly 825 students, as many as 50 a day have been out with flu-like illnesses this week. That’s up from an average 10 to 25 students out on any given day for illness.
“Just in the last week, we’ve seen an upsurge in kids out of the building,” Kepes said.
In Middlebury, Middlebury Union Middle School saw some of the highest rates of absenteeism due to flu-like illness last week, when the number out with symptoms of the flu reached 11 percent. That number is dropping now, said Principal Inga Duktig, who noted more students seem to be staying home with colds and sore throats than the flu.
Cases of flu-like illness are also up at Middlebury College, where the total number of students with influenza-like illness since the end of August hit 164 this week. Of that number, 101 are students who have demonstrated signs of flu-like illness in the past week.
Three students have been diagnosed with confirmed cases of H1N1, but as is the case at other schools in the county, that number may not accurately reflect the total number of H1N1 illnesses. Not all students are being tested for the disease, after all. According to the Department of Health, the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus continues to be the predominant type of flu circulating nationwide and in Vermont.
The advice from the Department of Health runs along “common sense” lines when it comes to avoiding illness, and schools are sticking to similar advice: Individuals are encouraged to wash their hands often and well, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing, and to stay home from work or school and away from others when sick. That self-imposed isolation is recommended to last for at least 24 hours after one’s fever has gone away.
Aside from the school clinics, some of the first H1N1 vaccination clinics in the region for the general public are slated to start next week, though these clinics are reserved for “high risk” individuals.
“High risk” individuals include:
• Pregnant women.
• Health care workers and emergency services personnel.
• Household contacts and caregivers for children younger than six months old. (Younger infants are at higher risk of influenza-related complications and cannot be vaccinated. Vaccination of those in close contact with infants younger than six months old might help protect infants by “cocooning” them from the virus.)
• All people from six months to 24 years of age.
• Persons age 24 through 64 who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from the flu, including asthma, heart disease and diabetes.
The high-risk clinics will take place in Middlebury on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at the American Legion from 4 to 6 p.m., and in Vergennes at the Eagles Club on Wednesday, Nov. 18, from 4 to 6 p.m. Addison County Home Health and Hospice is organizing the clinics. The flu shots will be available at no cost.
According to Home Health Executive Director Larry Goetschius, the organization is hopeful that more doses of the vaccine will be available in December, when clinics will be opened up to all age groups. That still gives people plenty of time to be vaccinated before flu season peaks, Goetschius said.
“There’s still plenty of time for people to get inoculated and feel that they’re going to be protected,” he said.

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