BROOKSVILLE — As swine flu begins to pop up in Tampa Bay-area schools, Hernando district officials are preparing their plan of attack.
Advice to parents, logistics for immunization efforts and even a form letter announcing school closures — should it come to that — are among the components up for consideration by the School Board on Tuesday.
One thing should be clear about the district's approach to the flu, said student services director Jim Knight.
"It is not going to be reactive," he said.
Officials from the school district and the Hernando County Health Department are meeting frequently to craft and update plans, Knight said.
The virus is not considered a serious threat to healthy people, but officials expect the flu to spread rapidly in schools over the next few months
A case had not been reported in Hernando schools as of Friday. However, the flu is so common that most doctors are no longer testing for it, said Ann-Gayl Ellis, spokeswoman for the Health Department.
"Ninety-nine percent of the flu cases out there are H1N1," Ellis said.
Students who show symptoms would be quarantined and required to wear surgical masks at school until their parents pick them up, Knight said. He said students and parents should not panic and assume a child with a mask has the flu.
The Health Department wants permission to use Nature Coast Technical and Hernando high schools as vaccination sites for the county's school-age children. If the board approves, the vaccines will be available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays for 12 consecutive weeks.
The Health Department has been told to expect an initial batch of 21,000 to 83,000 doses of the vaccine in mid to late October, and then a weekly shipment for nine weeks after that, Ellis said. Groups that will take priority for the first batch of the vaccine are children ages 6 months to 4 years, children ages 5 to 18 with chronic medical conditions, pregnant women, and health care and emergency services workers, Ellis said.
Also near the top of the priority list are adults ages 25 to 64 with chronic health conditions, as well as people who live with or care for children under 6 months old, because the vaccine cannot be administered to children that young.
The county's roughly 4,100 education personnel are currently not in the first tier, but are considered a high priority, Ellis said.
It's still unclear whether there will be a charge to the public for the vaccine, Ellis said. Those who don't have the means to pay a fee, which probably would not be more than $15, will not be turned away, she said.
Officials are discussing whether the department would reimburse the district for the roughly $27,000 expense to open the schools during that period, Knight said.
The form letter that would be sent to parents in the event a school closure is deemed necessary would include the number of days the school would be shuttered.
Ellis and Knight called closures the last resort. The Centers for Disease Control no longer recommend closing schools "unless there is a magnitude of faculty or student absenteeism that interferes with the school's ability to function," according to the CDC Web site.
More likely is a call for sub-populations within a school to stay home if infection rates start to rise in, say, the football team, the marching band or a particular class, Knight said.
Custodians already make extra efforts to clean points of contact, such as doorknobs and water fountains, said Sean Arnold, the district's director of maintenance.
In that sense, "It's business as usual for us," Arnold said.
A parent interviewed by the St. Petersburg Times on the first day of school said she had heard that students are not permitted to bring in alcohol-based sanitizer because some children are allergic to it.
Not so, Arnold said. However, students and staffers are discouraged from bringing in larger containers of the flammable liquid.
"We just don't want these big 5-gallon jugs sitting on desks," Arnold said. "Students can light them on fire, and they're like Molotov cocktails."
Plenty of non-alcohol-based sanitizer is already being furnished at all schools, he said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.