Maine schools are being hit hard and fast by the H1N1 virus. According to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Monday and Tuesday of this week more than 20 schools across the state reported student absentee rates of 15 percent or greater. By comparison, just eight schools reported such rates all last week.
Community schools reporting high absenteeism this week span the state geographically, from Bethel in the west to Jonesport in the east, from South Berwick in the south to St. Francis in the north.
“This is happening very fast,” said Dr. Dora Anne Mills, director of the Maine CDC. Mills said many schools are hosting immunization clinics this week, although demand for vaccine is still far greater than the available supply.
Among the many schools reporting high absenteeism this week are the Leonard Middle School in Old Town and Old Town High School. RSU 34 Superintendent David Walker said 101 of the high school’s 578 students and 67 of the middle school’s 280 students were out on Wednesday with most reporting flu-like symptoms. The numbers translate to 17.5 percent absenteeism and 24 percent, respectively.
“We’re also seeing some level of fear, resulting in some parents making a decision to keep a child home,” Walker said. For children who have recently gotten the H1N1 vaccine and are just waiting for it to take full effect — which takes about two weeks — Walker said the school is willing to excuse the limited absence and work with students and families to keep them abreast of classroom work and assignments.
“But if families are just planning to wait [the epidemic] out, that’s probably not a good plan,” he said, noting that it may be many months before H1N1 releases its grip.
Walker said the school district is refining contingency plans for teachers and staff who may fall ill from swine flu, as well as working with a local bus company to ensure students can get to school in the event that drivers are stricken by the virus.
Bangor schools had not reported high absentee rates as of Tuesday, according to the Maine CDC list. Superintendent Betsy Webb said Wednesday that “a few” parents had called in recent days to say their children had flu symptoms, and she said the school district is continuing to develop contingency plans and communication strategies.
Webb said many Bangor students have been vaccinated against both seasonal and H1N1 flu in recent days thanks to two public clinics for school-aged children and their younger siblings at the Bangor Civic Center organized by the Bangor Region Immunization Coalition.
The second such clinic vaccinated about 2,000 toddlers, children and teens against both H1N1 and seasonal flu on Wednesday. Some pregnant women also got the vaccines. The scene was considerably less chaotic than last week’s clinic, at which some 4,000 children got vaccinated.
Minnie Trask of Winterport brought her four children, ages 10, 7, 4 and 1. It took about two hours to get through the process, she said, including a one-hour wait outside.
Trask said she had been undecided about having her children receive the H1N1 vaccine.
“I really had to think about it,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how it would affect them. … If I didn’t have the baby, I might have gone without it, but I know it’s worse if the little ones get it.”
The civic center event opened with about 2,300 doses of H1N1 vaccine in both injectable and nasal spray form. About 300 doses were left over at the end of the day and will be distributed at other area vaccine clinics.
Kathy Knight, director of the Northeastern Maine Regional Resource Center, said many schools outside the immediate Bangor area are planning on-site clinics for the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines but are having to wait for vaccine supplies to arrive. Some community hospitals and public health clinics also will host public flu vaccination events as supplies become available, Knight said.
Despite widespread illness in some area schools, she said, there is no doubt that the H1N1 vaccine being administered to students is protective against the virus.
“Each lot is tested for effectiveness,” she said.
Mills of the Maine CDC said the state has recently released some of its stockpiled supply of antiviral medications such as Tamilfu and Relenza. These medications can be helpful in preventing or easing the symptoms of the H1N1 and seasonal influenza strains.
Whether they are vaccinated against H1N1 or not, Mills said, individuals at high risk of developing serious symptoms — including children, teens, young adults, pregnant women and adults with chronic health problems — should seek a prescription for antiviral medication if they have been exposed to the virus or if they develop symptoms such as high fever, cough, sore throat and extreme fatigue.