N.Y.C. Outbreak Throws Wrench Into Parents' Days
Flowers and candles piled up Monday outside a school whose assistant principal died of swine flu as thousands of New York City parents scrambled to make arrangements for children at 12 schools closed because of the outbreak.
Mitchell Wiener, 55, died Sunday evening after being sick with the virus for nearly a week. A makeshift memorial sprang up in his memory outside the school — closed since Thursday — with one handwritten sign reading, "R.I.P. Mr. Wiener."
Japan has closed 2,000 schools and canceled public events after more than 130 people — most of them teenagers — tested positive for the virus. And swine flu dominated the World Health Organization's five-day annual meeting, which began Monday in Geneva with the agency's chief saying she is not yet raising the pandemic alert to the highest level.
As of Monday, the swine flu virus has sickened more than 8,800 people people in 40 countries, including more than 70 deaths.
The school closures in New York City affected roughly 12,000 students. New York has the nation's largest public school system, with 1.1 million students. All but two of the closed schools are public.
Hospital and city officials say complications besides the virus probably played a part in the death of Weiner, who had been hospitalized and on a ventilator. But Wiener's family has disputed that, saying he had suffered only from gout, a joint disease.
Funeral arrangements hadn't been announced Monday, and Wiener's son Adam asked a reporter Monday to respect the family's wish to grieve privately.
Wiener's death was the sixth swine-flu-related fatality in the U.S.; officials have also reported three in Texas, one in Washington state and one in Arizona.
Wiener had taught in New York City for decades, starting as a substitute teacher in 1978. Since 2007, he had been an assistant principal at I.S. 238, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Intermediate School, in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens.
"He was a well-liked and devoted educator," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
No one else in the city has become seriously ill from the virus. Most people sickened from swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, have complained of mild, seasonal flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.
The city's first cluster of swine flu cases popped up three weeks ago, when about 700 students and 300 other people associated with a Catholic high school in Queens began falling ill following the return of several students from vacations in Mexico, the epicenter of the global outbreak. The school was closed.
On Monday, officials announced that a private Catholic boys' school in Manhattan, St. David's School, had decided on its own to close.
The headmaster, David O'Halloran, said the decision was made because "we had an unusually high number of children reporting flu-like symptoms in the last four days. It seemed like the right thing to do for now. We weren't asked to close by anybody."
Public schools will be providing curriculum material online, and parents will be able to pick up materials at schools and other locations, schools Chancellor Joel Klein said.
The city health department said it is monitoring unusual clusters of flu cases as it works to stop the spread of the virus. Officials hope the school closures will help slow the spread of the virus "within the individual school communities," Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said.
Frieden was named Friday by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he will be faced with some immediate decisions on how to deal with the nation's outbreak, including whether to produce a vaccine. He'll begin at the CDC in June.
The school where the virus was first reported in the city, St. Francis Preparatory, has been cleaned and reopened, and many New Yorkers had assumed before the latest flurry of school closings that the danger of swine flu was subsiding.
But Dr. Scott Harper, a health department epidemiologist, said health officials weren't surprised by the continued presence of the virus.
"It's so unpredictable," Harper said.
Health officials urged people with underlying health conditions to see their doctors if they believe they may have been exposed to swine flu. That includes people with diabetes, people whose immune systems are compromised because of certain cancer medications, pregnant women, elderly people and infants.