Hundreds with flu in city and county school systems

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   With the flu at a fevered pitch nationwide, regional health officials are hurrying to vaccinate people while local educators deal with more empty classroom seats. Flu in the Carter County and Elizabethton school systems has caused hundreds of student absences since late last week.
   "This is one of the worst I've seen," said Mike Rader, principal of Happy Valley High School, on Wednesday. "It has been a lot of stomach viruses; we've had some of everything."
   More than 25 percent of Happy Valley's 580 students were absent last Friday, not including students who got sick at school and left early. "Last Friday we got up close to 180 to 200," said Rader, who added the school has averaged 150 students absent each day since then.
   The flu season usually extends from November through April each year. Highly contagious, influenza is spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or speaks and sends flu virus into the air, and other people inhale the virus. Rader said school staff spent the past weekend using industrial-strength cleaners and bleach to disinfect the school.
   "A lot of kids' parents are calling in saying the doctors told them they need to stay out of school three to five days," said Rader.
   The Happy Valley boys basketball teams had to cancel a game last Friday against David Crockett because too many players were sick.
   "We've only got two or three varsity boys basketball players that haven't been hit," said Rader. "The girls have been hit but not quite as bad as the boys."
   The flu virus has also attacked substitute teachers, and teachers and their aides are working together more to keep up with classroom work. "A lot of teachers are helping each other out," he said.
   Regina Cates, principal at T.A. Dugger Junior High School, said Wednesday that roughly 20 percent of the student body has been absent every day since Friday, with more than 100 of the school's 500 students absent every day this week. The school typically averages 12 to 18 students absent per day.
   Cates said symptoms, including nausea, fever, and a "terrible cough" were prevalent among students, and when she sees these symptoms, she tells students to go home. School officials said staff and maintenance personnel are working overtime to disinfect locker handles, door knobs and bathroom faucets to keep germs away. She also said teachers were handing out antibacterial soap to students.
   "Each room is being disinfected each day," said Cates. "We are trying to keep the faucets and everything children touch disinfected between class periods. The Clorox wipes are prevalent."
   Elizabethton High School Principal Edwin Alexander said 224 of the school's 850 students were absent Wednesday afternoon, including students who went home due to illness.
   "There is not a darn thing we can do," said Alexander.
   Jamie Swift, director of the Communicable Disease Program with Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Department in Johnson City, said several counties in the region are completely without flu vaccine this week. "Our Tennessee numbers are up," said Swift.
   While several physicians reported the number of flu diagnoses to the department, others did not. Through Wednesday, the department had confirmed 500 flu cases in the Northeast region that includes Carter, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Washington, and Unicoi counties.
   The state Department of Health released 9,300 additional doses of flu vaccine this week. The Northeast received 1,000 of those. Swift said the region is running low on infant vaccines, and he doesn't expect to receive more before the end of the season.
   The U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta is monitoring this season's flu outbreak. The CDC reported in mid-November that people in the United States are getting sick with the flu earlier in the year than usual.
   More people are testing positive for type-A (H3N2) flu, according to the CDC. Historically, the type-A flu virus is associated with severe flu seasons, and more people are hospitalized and die from the illness.
   Health officials warned the public the current flu season would be severe and to get flu shots. However, only two companies in the United States that manufacture the flu vaccine have run out of it.
   Doctors say it takes about two weeks to develop maximum protection after a flu shot.
   In an average year, influenza causes 36,000 deaths (mostly among those aged 65 years or older) and 114,000 hospitalizations in the United States, according to the CDC. About 70 to 75 million Americans receive a flu shot each year. This year, manufacturers produced approximately 83 million doses of flu vaccine. The United States has never used more than 80 million doses of flu vaccine in a season.
   The CDC advises the elderly and infirm, those with chronic heart or lung conditions or other medical problems, to get flu shots. The CDC also recommends flu shots for children and teenagers six months to 18 years old who are on long-term aspirin therapy and who could develop Reye Syndrome after the flu. Reye Syndrome is a deadly disease that affects all organs of the body, mainly the liver and brain.
   Women more than three months pregnant are also encouraged to get a flu shot.
   For those ages five to 49, the nasal flu vaccine mist is another option, though it's more expensive.
   Frequently washing hands and avoiding touching the nose, eyes, and mouth will help people avoid spreading or getting the flu or other respiratory infections, like a cold.