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10/21/2009 02:23 PM
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[link to www.lansingstatejournal.com]

Flu forces 16 schools to shut down
Only one facility in mid-Michigan closed by illness
Christine Rook clrook@lsj.com October 21, 2009 From Lansing State Journal

Flu cases are rising across the state and have forced an estimated 16 schools to close.

Some schools across mid-Michigan are reporting absenteeism at rates as high as 32 percent. Other local districts are seeing very few flu-like illnesses.

The result is that there's no way to know how many mid-Michigan schools might ultimately shutter as the swine flu or H1N1 makes its way through the population.

Most of the closings in Michigan have occurred in western Michigan, and so far only one school in mid-Michigan, East Olive Elementary School in the St. Johns district, has decided to close.

The 166-student building shut down Monday and will reopen next week.

State and area health officials don't have a set threshold of absenteeism when it comes to closing a school.

Twelve percent absenteeism might be enough to shut a school, if the principal happens to have a high population of students with asthma or other health concerns, said Dr. Eden Wells, a medical epidemiologist with the state department of Community Health.

A much higher rate might not be enough for a building that is seeing all its absenteeism in just one or two classrooms, according to local officials.

Local officials say decisions to close schools are being weighed on a case-by-case basis. And in some cases, there might be multiple factors and reasons for closing a school.

"We closed the school to break the cycle of infection," said St. Johns Superintendent Ken Ladouceur, speaking about the decision to shut East Olive.

Clinton County health officials, however, said the primary reason for shutting the school was that the loss of students caused classroom disruptions.

Normally this time of year schools experience an average absentee rate of 10 percent. East Olive hit the 30 percent mark, but other schools are seeing worse, though.

In East Lansing, for example, absenteeism was at 32 percent at Marble Elementary, officials there said Tuesday.

The school didn't close, which appears to follow Ing-ham County health guidelines. Officials say that closing a school doesn't really stop kids from getting sick, because H1N1 is everywhere in the community.

State health experts are largely blaming the swine flu for the latest round of illnesses, calling it the second wave of sickness.

The first hit in April, according to Wells.

Some districts appear barely affected.

Lansing schools, for example, reported they have lost only 2.6 percent of their faculty and students to flu-like symptoms. Elsewhere, illnesses have risen noticeably - and just within the past week.

"We had a marked uptick in the numbers of schools experiencing a high level of absenteeism," Wells said.

Ingham County officials want schools and businesses to follow a flu-free policy, meaning the businesses shouldn't let people work or attend classes, if the they have flu-like symptoms.

"That will really slow this thing down," said Marcus Cheatham, assistant deputy health officer with the county Health Department. "It won't stop it, but it will slow it down."

Fatal disease
H1N1 can be deadly. Since April, 15 people in the state have died in connection with flu-like symptoms.

One person was from Eaton County and is the only flu victim to have died in mid-Michigan. Most of the rest passed away in the southeastern part of the state.

All were adults, and two thirds had underlying medical issues, state officials say.

The good news is that the H1N1 virus that is circulating in Michigan has not grown in virulence and has not shown resistance to anti-viral medications.

Unfortunately, in some people it can develop into a nasty viral pneumonia, and while good handwashing and avoiding sick people is a good way to keep from getting sick, the flu is not always predictable.

"With flu," Wells said, "prepare to be surprised."
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