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Schools, county gear up for flu

The first day of school may still be a couple weeks away, but now is the time for prepare for what could be a very hectic flu season.

Although it lost some media attention since spring, the H1N1 influenza, commonly known as Swine Flu, never went away, and officials are predicting that it will come back in full force this fall, when kids are in close quarters.

A grim report from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology predicted that as many as half of the U.S. population could be infected with H1N1 this fall and winter, leading to as many as 1.8 million hospital admissions, and possibly 90,000 deaths nationwide.

The regular seasonal flu sees between 30,000 and 40,000 annual deaths, usually in people over the age of 65.

Becker County Community Health Organizer Ronda Stock said the only problem is that nothing is certain at this point, especially when it comes to a potential vaccine.

"The vaccine is still up in the air, they're still running tests, so we're not sure yet when it will be ready," she said. "Everything will roll out very quickly."

Many reports estimate that a vaccine will be out by mid-October.

"It will be a long fall," she said. "These are all just guesstimates, of course, no one knows for sure what's going to happen."

Right now, the county's priority is to work with schools and other workplaces, like nursing homes, to educate staff and parents about prevention methods, and symptoms to look for.

Although this flu is similar to others in that it poses high risks for those with pre-existing conditions, it's also unique because it affects a demographic typically associated with good health: the 5- to 24-year-old set, which is not only the prime age of schoolchildren, it's also a good chunk of the workforce.

Prevention is still a matter of basic hygiene, Stock said -- covering coughs, washing hands often and staying home if you think you're sick for 24 hours after the fever breaks without the aid of anti-fever medication.

In the Detroit Lakes School District, Superintendent Doug Froke said letters are going out to parents in every orientation packet detailing guidelines for keeping kids healthy.

"We're the target population," he said. "As kids come back to school, the collective setting is such that we're a prime ground for manifestation of the virus, so obviously schools and colleges and universities have an issue on their hands right when classes resume."

He said the district also spent about $2,800 equipping every classroom with a supply of sanitary wipes.

"It's a small price to pay to be proactive, I think," Froke said.

The letter also recommends that parents provide their school-age children with hand sanitizers for their backpacks.

As for the funding to distribute a vaccine when it becomes available, Stock said she has gotten word that Becker County will likely be able to receive some federal funding from Public Health Emergency Response.

"That's different than our local public health emergency funds, so it's some help, but not a lot," she said. "We're also looking at a shortage of shot givers, so we'll have to pool our resources and get help and make it happen."

Becker County Administrator Brian Berg said he hadn't heard specifics on funding for the potential pandemic, but said he "made some assumption" that there would be money.

"If there's a national concern, I would assume there's going to be some granting process," he said. "I have no hesitation that money would not be the problem of getting this out. We manage our money better than that."

Still, things with H1N1 are changing every day, and Stock said between September, when flu season officially starts, and whenever the vaccine is available is a time to be vigilant and cautious.

"Everything is so fluid -- nothing is fully gelled," Stock said. "We know H1N1 is everywhere."