TAMPA —- The swine flu pandemic is likely to get significantly worse this fall as children go back to school, officials said Tuesday.
Hillsborough County schools could see absence rates of up to 30 percent as the infection rate of the H1N1 virus peaks. And the district will play a "major role" in vaccinating children and school staff members once a vaccine arrives this fall, said superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
"We expect a surge [of absences] within one to two weeks after school starts, and continuing for several months," said Dr. Doug Holt, director of the Hillsborough County Health Department. "And this entire pandemic could last up to 18 months."
Despite that dire prediction, school and county officials say they are ready with a plan to limit the spread and disruptive effect of the virus.
Schools will take extra steps to make sure surfaces get cleaned and children wash their hands frequently, Elia said. Parents will be urged to keep children home if they have flu symptoms.
"I think the important thing is for them to be attuned to how their children are feeling," she said. "We're also very attuned to the fact that closing schools is not necessarily the answer to this. But we certainly don't want to take any chances with a child and their health and safety."
Although pregnant women and those with chronic health conditions face a higher risk of complications if infected with H1N1, most people experience typical flu symptoms, Holt said.
Those with a fever and aches, coughing or gastro-intestinal problems should stay home and isolate themselves until 24 hours after fever passes, he said.
For more details and updates, visit tampabay.com or read tomorrow's St. Petersburg Times.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.