Schools prepare for potential swine flu outbreaks

Officials at both the Ashland School District and Southern Oregon University are preparing for potential H1N1 virus outbreaks on campuses this fall.

Both the district and university will send letters to parents and students next week that detail their protocols for dealing with the virus, known as swine flu.

School district officials are especially troubled by Ashland's low vaccination rates and they worry that even when the H1N1 vaccine is available this fall, many parents may decide not to have it administered to their children, Superintendent Juli Di Chiro said.

"That is a concern," she said. "I don't know what parents will decide to do. We certainly can't require them to get flu shots."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people between the ages of 6 months and 24 years receive the H1N1 vaccine, because that group is among the most vulnerable.

In 2007, 28.1 percent of Ashland kindergartners were exempted from vaccinations, while statewide the number was 3.7 percent, according to the Jackson County Health and Human Services Department. More recent statistics were not available, but Di Chiro said the exemption rate is still high.

Ashland parents often choose not to vaccinate their children for religious reasons or because they believe vaccines can cause other health problems.

The district has had no known cases of swine flu so far, Di Chiro said.

At SOU, a student attending a music camp and staying in the dorms tested positive for Influenza A last month and health officials believe the student likely had the H1N1 virus, which is a subtype of Influenza A, said Dr. Laura Robin, medical director of the university's Student Health and Wellness Center.

"Most of the people who are testing positive for Influenza A do have H1N1," she said. "There's not a lot of seasonal flu circulating right now."

The World Health Organization has declared the H1N1 flu to be a global pandemic, "which means that it's everywhere," Robin said.

"We are assuming that it's here in Ashland," she said.

The university's crisis management team has created an H1N1 plan, providing an outline for what to do in "the worst case scenario," Robin said.

Unlike when the virus first hit in the spring, health experts aren't recommending that entire campuses close when a few cases are confirmed at the schools, Di Chiro said. However, if the disease became more widespread on campuses, school closure is still an option, university and district officials said.

"Schools are likely to stay open," Di Chiro said. "If there's a school really approaching a lot of absenteeism, we may have to decide to close."

The school district also has a plan to deal with the virus, should an outbreak occur on campus.

For now, officials are focusing on prevention. During the first few weeks of school, teachers will outline proper hand-washing techniques and other hygiene habits that can slow the spread of the virus, Di Chiro said. Unlike in years past, all students with fevers will be immediately sent home and not be allowed to stay in the nurse's office, she said.

Both the district and university are working to educate students, parents and staff members before school starts — next week for the district and later this month for SOU.

More information on how to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus will be available on the university's and district's Web sites, and

Meanwhile, besides drawing up plans and educating students and staff members, there is little officials can do except wait to see what the fall will bring.

"We all pray that we're going to get through this with out a big outbreak," Di Chiro told the School Board last month, "but we're all going to be prepared in case that does happen."

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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