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Twin Ports schools prepare flu plan

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DULUTH - With one confirmed U.S. swine flu death and a probable case found in Minnesota, area health agencies and schools are fielding more questions from a concerned public, and two colleges have canceled study-abroad programs in Mexico.

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The World Health Organization raised its pandemic alert to its second-highest level Wednesday, meaning it believes a global outbreak is looming.

Twin Ports school officials confirmed Wednesday they will close a building if a student comes down with swine flu, and the school could go into quarantine for seven days.

No flu cases have been identified in the area, but some students in Duluth have reported possible symptoms to school nurses, said Katie Kaufman, public relations director for the Duluth school district.

"Students with a fever, cough or body aches are being urged to go home and a few have been referred to physicians," Kaufman said.

The Duluth district's crisis response team will meet today to review recommendations for dealing with the flu from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education, Kaufman said.

If a case is identified at a Superior school, Superintendent Jay Mitchell said, Douglas County Health Services is advising the building be quarantined for seven days. The rest of the school district would remain open.

In preparation, Mitchell said, teachers have been told to send more assignments home with students so they can continue with their coursework if a building is quarantined.

Both school districts said parents would be alerted of a closure by automated phone message system and possibly letters. Duluth said it also would try to notify parents through the local media, and Superior said closures would be posted on school Web sites.

The Superior school district is beefing up efforts to combat the spread of germs.

"The district prides itself in keeping clean buildings," said Nancy Smith, health coordinator for the Superior school district. "Our director of buildings and grounds is working very closely with custodians to ensure our facilities are cleaned properly. Any surface that is touched repeatedly, any flat hard, surfaces are being thoroughly cleaned."

Twelve nontraditional students from the College of St. Scholastica's St. Paul and Brainerd campuses traveled to Cuernavaca, Mexico, on Sunday for a course and were called back by the college Tuesday. The students were given the choice of being lodged in a Twin Cities hotel, and were asked to refrain from visiting their campuses for a few days, said Bob Ashenmacher, spokesman for the college. A September study-abroad course in Mexico has been canceled.

The University of Minnesota Duluth has canceled two study-abroad programs in Mexico scheduled for May. Sixteen students and one instructor were scheduled to spend three weeks in Guanajuato, Mexico, for a Spanish language and culture program. Another six students and one instructor were scheduled to spend two weeks at various locations in the country for a fieldwork program. UMD currently has no students in programs in Mexico.

Closing schools and businesses in the event of a pandemic can lead to problems for many families and entire communities, said Dr. Timothy Burke, a health-care epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist for SMDC Health System.

"However, the available evidence does say that those kinds of nonmedical interventions are quite effective," he said. Data from the 1918 pandemic shows that cities that were proactive about "social distancing" and limiting public events had smaller outbreaks, Burke said. "On the flip side, cities that didn't do that were among the most hard-hit."

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Libby Welsh, nursing supervisor in the Duluth office of St. Louis County Public Health, said people who suspect they have swine flu symptoms -- which include a fever of 102 degrees or higher, chills, body aches and a deep cough -- should call a physician before going in to see one.

"For 95 percent of the people who get this, it's going to be another flu just like the seasonal respiratory flu we get every year," Welsh said. "We have had one death in the U.S. [from swine flu] and every year in the U.S. we have 36,000 deaths from what we call seasonal flu. If things get out of hand with a high mortality rate, then we're talking a whole different animal, but we have no reason to believe that yet."

Superior Telegram Publisher Leslee Leroux contributed to this report.

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