Obama Offers New Take on Flu as More Schools Close
Scores more schools shut down Friday as the federal government reported more than two dozen new cases of swine flu, but President Barack Obama voiced hope that the virus will run its course "like ordinary flus."
The U.S. Department of Education said that 433 schools had closed, affecting 245,000 children in 17 states. That was about 100 more schools reported closed than Thursday.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to be able to manage this effectively,” Obama told reporters as he received an update from his Cabinet on the federal response to the health emergency. At the same time, he emphasized that the federal government is preparing as if the worst is still to come so that it won’t be caught flat-footed.
Obama’s fresh take on the flu scare—more intense in neighboring Mexico than in the United States but also present in some measure around the globe—came as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the virus has been confirmed in eight more U.S. states and seems to be spreading.
Confirmed cases have risen from 109 to 141, the CDC said, with flu now reported in 19 states, up from 11. Separately, a few states reported slightly higher numbers.
"We think the cases do continue to occur," said CDC’s Dr. Anne Schuchat. But CDC also said the new swine flu virus lacks genes that made the 1918 pandemic strain so deadly.
Obama said it wasn’t clear whether the flu would be more severe than others before it, and he said the swine flu is a cause for special concern because it is a new strain and people have not developed an immunity to it.
Florida Gets First Cases
School closures were scattered from coast to coast, including Arizona, California, Florida, Maine, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Nebraska, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, Washington state, and Wisconsin.
In Florida, where officials reported the state’s first two confirmed cases on Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist directed the state’s surgeon general to declare a public health emergency, empowering her to take any action necessary to prevent the flu’s spread.
Authorities withheld full identification of the victims, but said they were an 11-year-old boy from Lee County, on Florida’s southwest coast, and a 17-year-old girl from Broward County in South Florida.
The boy attends Spring Creek Elementary, while the girl is a student at Hallandale High School. Officials said she had recently been to Mexico, where hundreds have been sickened by the virus.
Hallandale High School will close Monday through Wednesday, Broward School Board Vice Chairwoman Jennifer Gottlieb said. District officials hope to reopen the school Thursday, but plans have not been finalized.
"We’re taking every precaution necessary to limit the exposure and keep our students safe," Gottlieb said. "Whatever we have to do for the safety and health of our students, the district will do that."
Spring Creek Elementary school Principal Karen Leonardi informed parents about the suspicious case in a letter that carried Tuesday’s date. The letter, which was posted on the (Fort Myers) News-Press’ Web site, said school officials were working with the Lee County health department but had decided to keep the school open during normal hours because the case had not yet been confirmed.
Crist said he would let local officials decide how to handle the situation at schools.
Closures in Tennessee, Maryland
In Tennessee, a Nashville private school canceled its classes for a week because students and faculty are exhibiting flu-like symptoms, school officials said. The St. Vincent de Paul School spokesman Rick Mussacchio says two students and one teacher are exhibiting symptoms consistent with the flu.
Mussacchio says no one has been linked with swine flu, but the school is being cautious and has urged them to contact their medical providers. School officials plan to clean the school and resume classes May 11, following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
The Tennessee Department of Health is investigating three probable swine flu cases in schoolchildren in Davidson, Williamson, and Shelby counties. Each of the schools has been closed for seven days.
Meanwhile, in Maryland, officials on Friday closed a high school out of concern for swine flu after a disabled student became the ninth person in the state with a probable case of the illness.
Dr. Ulder Tillman, Montgomery County’s health officer, said extracurricular events associated with Rockville High School also would be called off this weekend, but she said officials were working to find a way to hold SAT testing.
“The important message here is that we do need to create what we’ve been discussing about the social distancing and, until we know further, that’s trying to maintain six feet away from someone’s coughing or sneezing,” Tillman said.
About 75 samples of flu-like illness have been tested this week in Maryland as of Thursday, according to Department of Health & Mental Hygiene spokesman David Paulson. No one has required hospitalization in the state from the illness, and none of the cases has been confirmed yet by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tillman said the fact that the student has special needs “has created some additional concerns in terms of how an infection can be spread to others.” Tillman said the student has a sibling who attends another school, and officials are following up on whether that person is ill and could have spread the illness elsewhere.
The school will need to be closed indefinitely until health officials better understand how the student became sick, Tillman said. The sick student had not been to Mexico, where more than 3,000 cases have been identified, and neither had a family member. Dr. Fran Phillips, Maryland’s deputy health secretary, said that demonstrates that the illness is a “community acquired disease now.”
"This is an evolving phenomenon across the country," Phillips said.
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