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In Terms of Flu, Officials Stress Need for Vigilance, but Not Panic
At the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, they're getting ready for the onslaught of students that comes with the start of each new academic year: Carpets are being shampooed, floors cleaned and buffed, and walls repainted. In addition, every surface -- whether it be desktop, bathroom door, locker, door knob, telephone, keyboard or any other area that people might come in contact with -- is being cleaned with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-approved bleach solution to ward off possible swine-flu infection.
Welcome back, everyone!
While the spread of swine flu -- known as the H1N1 virus -- has slowed since it first appeared last spring, health officials are concerned about a second major wave of infection once flu season actually begins. In several recent news reports, the World Health Organization has warned of a potential "explosion" of the illness in coming months, although it was said that the reappearance might likely be concentrated in less developed parts of the world.
Meanwhile, concern over the potential spread of the disease has increased at Jewish schools after a number of swine-flu cases were reported at Jewish camps across the United States this summer.
There were no major outbreaks at overnight camps in the Poconos, although any number of counselors rigorously checked youngsters for high temperatures and other symptoms of illness, often sending them home until they recovered.
Many local day schools -- taking their cue from camps -- are going to be carefully following the guidelines set up by the CDC, which maintains a Web site on how to prevent the spread of influenza. For example, children have been advised to cover their mouths with a tissue when coughing or sneezing, and to wash their hands regularly.
At Barrack, in addition to the extensive cleaning measures taking place each day, students will have access to hand sanitizers throughout the school and will be encouraged to use it, according to upper-school director Leslie Pugach.
Yet one of the most important things the school can -- and will -- do, she said, is to send home anyone feeling sick, and not allow them to return until they're fever-free for at least 24 hours without any medication -- a CDC requirement, said Pugach.
Because illness could put students -- as well as faculty and staff -- out of school for extended periods, Pugach said that if need be, workloads could be readjusted to compensate for extra time out of the classroom.
She stressed that even if it means that kids miss an extra few days of education in order to get healthy, so be it.
"The last thing we need is for somebody to come back and reinfect everybody," she said.
Still Sorting Out the Details
At Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia in Wynnewood, Rabbi Shmuel Jablon said that administrators had not yet fully determined what measures to take in the coming year, but were consulting with the school's medical advisory board (including a specialist in infectious diseases) as to how best to proceed.
The principal added that the school would likely stick close to the CDC guidelines. He stressed the importance of being "properly protective without inducing needless panic."
Besie Katz, principal of Politz Hebrew Academy, remarked that school administrators "pretty much have our pulse on the community, and our school community has not been ill with swine flu, so we're not taking any immediate measures right now."
Like other institutions, Politz has been consulting with officials in the Pennsylvania Department of Health, as well as following the recommendations for keeping kids out of school until they are healthy enough to return.
Hand sanitizer will be at the ready, she stated, and cleaning crews use industrial-strength antiseptics throughout the facility.
Jay Leberman, the head of school at the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, recently sent a letter home to families indicating that the institution would be following CDC protocol, in addition to increasing the space between desks; postponing class trips for the time being; and screening students and staff for symptoms of illness upon arrival at school.
Despite anxiety over the virus, many doctors have observed that some fears have been overblown.
"We certainly do expect the flu to return in the fall," said Michael Serlin, chief of infectious diseases at North General Hospital in New York.
"H1N1 doesn't seem to be any more virulent than any other flu, but because it hasn't existed until now, there's no vaccine, and that's why it's spread very fast," he explained.
Scientists around the world are racing to develop an effective vaccine in time for flu season.
As of Monday, the CDC's Web site reported 552 fatal cases of swine flu in the United States.
In Pennsylvania, 10 deaths had been reported, including eight in the Greater Philadelphia region, according to the Web site run by the state Department of Health.
Gil Shefler of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency contributed to this report.