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Hillsborough to reopen schools after CDC backs off need for drastic steps over swine flu cases

TAMPA — In an abrupt turnaround, Hillsborough County school officials decided Tuesday night to reopen three schools shut down due to swine flu exposure, hours after the federal government said the virus was less threatening than originally feared.

Freedom High, Wilson Middle and Liberty Middle schools will reopen Thursday after workers finish cleaning the buildings, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. And if other cases of the H1N1 virus are found, she added, the district will not close schools again unless the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or local health officials recommend doing so.

"They (originally) told us to close, and we did what they told us to do," Elia said. "It made sense to be cautious."

The changes capped a fast-moving day in which the CDC reversed its previous guidance, that schools with potential exposure to the virus should close for up to two weeks. And school districts around Florida and the nation quickly reconsidered their own positions.

Both Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen, whose county found the region's first confirmed case of swine flu, and Hernando superintendent Wayne Alexander said they would follow the new recommendations.

"If they feel it's not necessary to close schools, of course we'll go along with that," Janssen said.

Florida has five confirmed cases of swine flu and 19 probable ones, including six in Hillsborough, where a new case was reported Tuesday involving a 25-year-old woman who is recovering.

In Florida, state officials counted eight schools closed in five counties. Three of them are reopening today, including two in Miami-Dade and an elementary school in Clay County.

Spring Creek Elementary in Lee County, which has two confirmed cases, will reopen on Thursday. And Broward County will decide today whether to reopen Hallandale High, where a girl with the state's first confirmed case of swine flu attends school.

Some 726 schools across the nation closed this week for flu-related reasons, keeping around 468,000 students at home, according to the federal Department of Education.

The number of confirmed swine flu cases in the United States is now over 400, with hundreds more probable cases.

A Texas schoolteacher became the first American to die as a consequence of the virus, Texas health officials said Tuesday.

The 33-year-old woman from Harlingen, near the Mexico border, had a pre-existing medical problem, said Dr. Leonel Lopez, epidemiologist for the Cameron County Department of Health and Human Services. "The flu just made things worse."

Changing positions

As Tuesday began, there was no indication that any of those schools — including Freedom High or Wilson Middle in Hillsborough, where a 15-year-old girl and 11-year-old boy with likely infections went to school — would be opening before week's end.

But at an afternoon news conference, the acting CDC director, Dr. Richard Besser, said health officials were not seeing the rates of severe disease that were being reported initially from Mexico.

"When you get to situations approaching that of seasonal flu, then the downside of school closures starts to outweigh the benefits of closing schools," he said, noting that the CDC has heard a lot from state and local agencies about the burden associated with school closings.

He pointed to situations where parents were dropping children off at libraries, and people faced the prospect of losing their jobs because of having to stay home with children. "These factors are real," he said.

Even so, the CDC is asking schools to be on watch. If a child appears sick with the flu, he or she should be isolated and sent home.

Shortly after the CDC news conference, though, Hillsborough Health Department officials were still warning that there were good reasons to keep the schools closed.

The director, Dr. Doug Holt, said the region was in the early stages of the swine flu outbreak. School closures had only delayed what he predicted would be an "eventual explosion" of new cases.

"Just by slowing it, the actions we took will have benefits on somebody," he said, noting that even mild influenza can be very harmful to residents with weakened immune systems.

But by early evening, school officials said, the Health Department was backing the move to open schools this week.

School Board members said they had fielded tough questions from constituents over the district's decision Sunday to close Wilson Middle and Freedom High for a week, along with Liberty Middle, which shares a cafeteria with the latter school.

" 'Why did you close the schools?' " said member Jack Lamb, recalling one man's challenge. "This was done on the recommendation of the Health Department."

Superintendent Elia said she wasn't worried about that sort of second-guessing and had no problem with the CDC's reversal.

What's important, she said, is that children were kept safe.

"We're anticipating that this (virus) could come back and be serious," Elia added. "We should plan for that."

Times staff writers Donna Winchester and Tony Marrero contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press. Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough to reopen schools after CDC backs off need for drastic steps over swine flu cases 05/05/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:50am]
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