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It's official: Swine flu hits Florida

Two children from South Florida are the state's first confirmed cases of swine flu.

The victims are an 11-year-old boy from Lee County, a student at Spring Creek Elementary School, and a 17-year-old Broward County girl who attends Hallandale High School and had recently been to Mexico, the center of the spreading epidemic. Both schools will be closed for a few days.

Gov. Charlie Crist declared a public health emergency Friday as state officials awaited results from several other possible swine flu cases, including one from Pinellas County, referred to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for testing.

The Pinellas case involves a man who recently traveled to Mexico. He didn't require hospitalization, and he is resting at home, according to the Pinellas County Health Department.

Still, concerns over the virus spurred the cancellation of the traditional handshake at commencement ceremonies this weekend at the University of South Florida, as colleges statewide passed out hand sanitizers and even masks.

Florida Surgeon General Ana Viamonte Ros said the two confirmed cases are likely not isolated. "We cannot predict the course of this outbreak, how it will affect our state," she said. "We do expect to see more cases in the coming days and weeks."

How many cases of swine flu have been confirmed in the United States?

The CDC reported 141 confirmed cases of swine flu in 19 states as of midday Friday. The numbers did not include the Florida cases, which were confirmed in the late afternoon.

So far, only one person in the U.S. has died, a 23-month-old boy from Mexico with underlying medical conditions who died in Texas.

Where are the suspected cases in Florida?

Florida officials have referred eight suspected cases of swine flu to the CDC for more testing. These cases come from six counties: Pinellas, Alachua, Orange, Lee, Broward and Palm Beach.

State officials send samples to the CDC for testing when their own tests cannot match them to a known virus. The referrals simply mean it's possible the cases could be swine flu.

What's being done to prevent the spread in South Florida?

Officials in Lee County, on the west coast, decided Friday to close Spring Creek Elementary, sending 700 students home for the next week.

Although the 11-year-old boy was the only confirmed case there on Friday, officials suspect another 11-year-old boy at the school also has swine flu. They are awaiting confirmation, said Jennifer James-Mesloh, spokeswoman for the Lee County Health Department.

She said neither student had traveled to Mexico recently. Their cases were so mild that both students attended school until late in the week, when officials asked them to stay home.

In Broward, on the east coast, district officials are closing Hallandale High School, where the 17-year-old patient has not been in class since April 24, from Monday to Wednesday. Schools officials hope to reopen on Thursday.

Authorities said the girl, who recently visited Mexico, was hospitalized but is now taking medication and doing well, the Associated Press reports.

Why are handshakes suspended at USF's graduation?

Fear of spreading germs amid heightened anxiety over swine flu prompted USF president Judy Genshaft to suspend the tradition of shaking the hands of some 4,600 students scheduled to graduate in four commencement ceremonies today and Friday.

Hand sanitizer will be widely available at the events, and Genshaft still plans to take photos with each graduate.

Is swine flu worse than the normal seasonal flu?

Health officials are still learning about the swine flu infection, which they prefer to call H1N1. Its unpredictable nature and rapid spread internationally has experts on high alert.

So far, however, the numbers affected are small. Every year in the United States, on average 5 to 20 percent of the population gets seasonal flu. More than 200,000 people are hospitalized from complications, and about 36,000 die of seasonal flu-related complications, according to the CDC.

What protective steps should people take this weekend?

Wash your hands thoroughly and often. Cough or sneeze into the crook of your elbow. Stay home if you're sick.

Otherwise, public health officials say there is no reason for healthy people to panic. Enjoy the weekend, like you would any other.

Where can I learn more?

State health officials have set up a hotline that people can call for more information. The toll free number is 1-800-775-8039.

The federal government has posted detailed information on how to protect against swine flu, and care for family members should they become sick at cdc.gov/h1n1flu.

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Richard Martin and Marc Caputo of the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires. Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit tampabay.com/health.

It's official: Swine flu hits Florida 05/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 6:22pm]

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