Education

School Had Long Week as Illness Became Outbreak

By The Associated Press — May 01, 2009 6 min read
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Felicia Mooradian is a prisoner in her own room.

The teenager leaves her sickbed only for trips to the bathroom. If she needs a glass of water, she summons her mother on her cell phone. Her body aches, she feels weak, and her throat is painfully sore. At one point, her fever hit 103.5.

If she tries to read, she gets dizzy. If she tries to watch a video, her head spins.

Felicia knows the likely culprit for her hellish week: swine flu. Over the last week, as hundreds of her fellow students have also fallen sick, St. Francis Preparatory School has become the site of the largest swine flu outbreak in the U.S.

Days after dozens of students were lined up outside the nurse’s office, with vomit on the floors, many of Felicia’s classmates are feeling better. Some are taking trips to the beach.

But Felicia’s fever hasn’t broken for five days. She’s still waiting.

Before the illness became an outbreak, it all started with a sun-splashed trip to Mexico.

Esti Lamonaca had only weeks left to her senior year, and now she had seven days and six nights to spend on the beach in Cancun with a group of 11 close friends, seven of them classmates at St. Francis Prep. Their all-inclusive resort had it all: a string of restaurants offering everything from sushi to pizza, as well as massages and a nightly disco. They spent days lounging on the sand or swimming at the pool. After dark, they hit the nightlife of the Cancun strip.

On the flight back home Sunday, April 19, they all felt fine. The words “swine flu” still hadn’t appeared in the news.

By Tuesday, Lamonaca was home sick.

Taking her seat in English class Thursday morning, back in the daily routine after a spring break spent at home, Abigail Medina-Masilang was determined to take her exam. She woke up with chest pains and a dry cough, but she definitely did not want a make-up test hanging over her head.

While sitting there, though, she started feeling really hot inside. When the 17-year-old senior finally gave up and headed for the tiny nurse’s office, she found eight or nine people ahead of her, sitting in chairs in the hallway. And the crowd kept growing.

In classes, everyone was talking about the flood of students heading home sick. One teacher said it must be a senior prank. But the crowd at the nurse’s office wasn’t just seniors. Some students started wondering: The windows aren’t open, could the seniors have released something into the school air?

Back at the nurse’s office, one student threw up right in front of the door. Security guards were taking temperatures; secretaries were brought over to help. School nurse Mary Pappas looked at the long line of students outside her door: Something wasn’t right. She picked up the phone to call the New York City Health Department.

Amid the chaos — students on their cell phones calling their parents to arrange rides, administrators trying to find cabs for those whose parents couldn’t come — sophomore Rachel Mele sat quietly, unable to catch her breath. Her throat hurt so badly she almost couldn’t bear it. She was shaking.

By that night, Rachel’s mother was terrified. Her usually bright-cheeked and talkative 16-year-old was drawn and shivering. She couldn’t swallow or drink any liquids. And she was having trouble breathing.

“I’ve never felt a pain like that before,” Rachel said later. “My throat, it was burning, like, it was the worst burning sensation I ever got before. ... I couldn’t even let up air. I could barely breathe through my mouth.”

Her mom and dad bundled her into the family car and headed for the hospital. She worried: What was wrong with her? Would she have to stay overnight? Once there, she got a text message from a friend warning about a chemical sprayed at the school. Rachel wondered — was she poisoned?

The doctors and nurses ran blood tests and did a chest x-ray — but they found nothing wrong. They told her the breathing problems could be the result of a panic attack. No one was thinking about the new strain of flu just beginning to be mentioned in the news.

On Friday, no one could miss the evidence that something was wrong. Someone moved the chairs for the sick students from a side corridor into the main hallway, where they were piling up again. By the end of the day, 80 students would go home sick. The day before, the total was 102.

Walking by, Jennifer Maurer, the editor of the school newspaper, hadn’t yet realized that a piece of a global health crisis was unfolding right here in the crowded corridor. The students were arranged in rows. She saw pale faces and pained expressions. Some were bent over in their chairs, looking like they might puke.

Health Department investigators were already wondering if these could be the first New York cases of the illness that was ravaging Mexico. They assembled a team, gathered the supplies to swab students’ noses and began driving from Manhattan to Queens.

They got stuck in a bad traffic jam, spending an hour and a half on the Long Island Expressway — their chance to test the crowd of ailing students slowly slipping away. By the time they got to St. Francis at 3:30 p.m., almost everyone was gone. They grabbed the handful of kids at the school, and tracked down a few more at a nearby doctor’s office. Nasal swabs were sent off by plane to a federal lab in Atlanta.

By nighttime, people started turning on the local news. At least one station was showing a graphic of a pig with a syringe. They learned a new term: swine flu.

Looking back, senior Abby Opam says, it’s so easy to see how the sickness could have spread. St. Francis is the largest Roman Catholic high school in the U.S., with 2,700 uniform-wearing students spilling into a few main hallways as they move from class to class.

Quarters are tight. And teenagers are not always big on personal space. They share drinks all the time. They hug when they see each other. When they pass in the hallway, it’s common to squeeze a friend’s face in greeting. On Wednesday, when the illness was already silently moving among the crowd, she remembers seeing a boy and a girl stop to kiss each other on the cheek as they walked between classes.

Like most of them, Abby hadn’t been vacationing at any exotic destination. But by Saturday, she had started coughing.

On the same day, a masked crew entered the school to disinfect the place, scrubbing down every desk, chair and classroom. A calculus review planned for Saturday was canceled. And soon, the mayor had started holding press conferences.

On Monday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said most students were beginning to feel better. By the next day, Abby was. So was Rachel, and so was Esti.

Some students headed to the beach to enjoy an extended spring break, with school called off for the week.

But others weren’t improving. By Wednesday morning, the first U.S. death — a boy in Texas, who wasn’t yet 2 — was confirmed.

Stuck in her Queens bedroom, Felicia is still feeling miserable.

Her throat is hurting, worse than before. Her fever’s still hovering at 101.5. She and her friends didn’t get to go to Cancun — but still, she’s home sick.

With her Advanced Placement exams scheduled to start Monday and no indication they’ll be delayed, she’s been trying to study but it’s been difficult. She has adjusted the fonts on her laptop to gigantic sizes so she can read for short stretches.

She wishes the doctors had given her Tamiflu at the hospital Saturday. She says two doctors and a nurse, all wearing masks, examined her and told her she didn’t have swine flu, saying her symptoms would have been worse if she was infected. They sent her home with a Tylenol.

Now she is worried about her 2-year-old brother, who seems far too close to all her toxic germs.

At 7 a.m. Wednesday, she got a breaking news text message about the death in Texas.

“I really just want to get well and go outside. I feel really anxious this morning about my brother because that toddler from Texas died,” she wrote in an e-mail, her voice too hoarse to talk. “I told my mother to call the doctor right away and see about getting my brother Tamiflu.”

Associated Press writer Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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