Flu Hits Schools As Vaccine Runs Out

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Unusually high absentee rates at two schools in the Payson Unified School District are an indicator that the worst flu in years is beginning to spread in the Rim country.

At Julia Randall Elementary School, absenteeism reached 20 percent Monday.

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Rim Country Middle School nurse Linda Swartwood examines eighth-grader Sara Sproul. Both RCMS and Julia Randall Elementary School experienced a spike in absentee rates Monday as the flu moved through the Rim country.

"That's 92 absences, so that's quite a bit out of 480 kids," JRE Principal Ardyth Potter said. "It's also affected a couple of our staff members."

Absentee rates around the district were above normal Monday at all PUSD schools, but were trending downward as the week progressed. JRE, which normally has a 5 percent absentee rate, went from 20 percent Monday, to 16 percent Tuesday, to 13 percent Wednesday.

Vicki White, who has been the school nurse at JRE for five years, said this year's outbreak is already the worst she has seen.

"We're having a lot of vomiting, a lot of fevers, a lot of upper respiratory," White said. "I think we're half and half between respiratory and stomach."

White has advised JRE teachers to take extra precautions.

"I e-mailed all the teachers and told them to start bleaching their desks, just to help with the spreading," she said. "It's done with a mixture of either bleach and soap or Clorox wipes."

The other school recording exceptionally high rates of absenteeism is Rim Country Middle School.

"We were very high at the beginning of the week, but it's tapering off," RCMS nurse Linda Swartwood said. "On Monday, I sent 19 students home. Yesterday I sent four home, mostly with flu symptoms. A whole bunch of them had fevers, and we send children home with temperatures over 100 degrees. That's what our policy is, and it's a way to try and keep things from spreading."

RCMS had an absentee rate of 21 percent Monday, with 112 of 633 students not at school. The percentage dropped to 18 percent Tuesday, 12 percent Wednesday and 11 percent Thursday.

PUSD Superintendent Herb Weissenfels said he is closely monitoring absenteeism at the district's six schools and will react accordingly. But at this point, he doesn't anticipate closing any schools, as has happened in Colorado and other states that have been particularly hard hit.

"There is some flu in town," Weissenfels said. "The hospital told us they are just beginning to see cases, but as we watch Colorado, as we watch Maricopa County, we probably are just on the front edge."

The holiday break begins Dec. 20, with students returning to school Jan. 5.

Weissenfels sent a letter home to parents Tuesday containing information and advice about the flu.

"The most important means of protecting you and your family from influenza is influenza vaccine, washing hands, and covering mouths when coughing or sneezing," Weissenfels said in the letter.

He also explained in the letter how to differentiate between the flu and other cold illnesses.

"Influenza illness typically is much more severe and its onset is much more sudden," Weissenfels wrote. "Typical symptoms of influenza include high fever (101 degrees or higher), cough, sore throat, headache and muscle aches."

Finally, Weissenfels urged parents to keep sick children home.

"Please do not send ill children to day-care centers, preschool or school or other activities where they will expose others," he wrote. "Thus, children with fever should remain at home."

Swartwood advises parents to become more proactive in determining whether a child is ill.

Physician's Assistant Marilyn Heron of Red Mountain Family Medicine said her office has been deluged with flu patients this week.

"My first confirmed case was Nov. 8 or 9, and I was seeing a couple a week that first week," Heron said. "Then it was like a couple a day. This last week, it's been like 50 percent of the people, and I've seen lots of kids the last few days -- more than adults. It's nasty stuff. This is an ugly one -- really, really high fevers, terrible body aches, horrible cough. It's just hitting people really hard."

While the flu kills an average of 36,000 Americans each year, this year looks to be much worse. Arizona was grouped with nine mostly western states where heavy outbreaks of the flu had been reported on a regional basis. But the number of cases have increased to the point where it is now among 24 states where the illness is considered "widespread." The list includes Colorado, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.

Flu shots

Because the flu season started early and has been particularly harsh, flu vaccine is running out in most of the country. Payson is no exception, according to Mary Jo Oft, co-owner and office manager, of Diversified Solutions, a company that provides health and safety services for employers.

Besides providing flu shots to employees of its clients, Diversified Solutions tries to order enough flu vaccine to service the entire community.

"But we sure ran out this year, and we've given a lot of vaccines," Oft said.

Red Mountain is also out of flu shots, according to Heron.

David Fletcher, director of health and community services for Gila County, confirmed the shortage of flu vaccine.

"At this point, we don't have any more vaccine," Fletcher said. "The state is trying to get some more and we've put in a request, but whether we get any is anybody's guess."

Fletcher also noted that the Rim country and the rest of Gila County have yet to experience a large outbreak of flu this season.

"Up at the Payson Regional Medical Center, they've had 15 cases confirmed by the lab, but because most people weather the flu at home, I wouldn't call that earth-shattering," he said. "Obviously there is flu in the area, but we're not seeing anywhere near the activity they're seeing in the Valley."

How bad the Rim country will be hit is anybody's guess.

"Normally we don't peak in the season until the end of December and probably the middle of January," Fletcher said. "All that's happened this year is that we've had an extremely early year. Time will only tell if we're going to peak at the normal time and then drop off or if it's going to last longer."

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