Although the movie was about a fictional disease spread by a monkey, the opening scene from the 1995 film “Outbreak” shows how illness can spread among members of the public.
In a darkened movie theater with only the screen harshly illuminating the people inside, a single person sneezes. The spray and droplets fly several feet and contact a number of unsuspecting moviegoers.
Change the movie theater to a school or workplace and the fictional monkey-borne illness to influenza and you have the reason school officials have been urging parents to keep sick children at home and businesses are advising the same of sick workers, echoing health-care professionals.
At the schools, nurses are keeping their eyes peeled for signs of sick children and advising those who are healthy how to stay that way. The flu is affecting the number of children in school each day, officials said.
“We are seeing an increase in absenteeism due to the flu,” Granville High School nurse Brooke Hover said. The number of students out due to illness has risen steadily over the past two weeks, reaching thus far a high of 101 students in the high school. Hover said Granville is facing a pretty typical level of illness compared to the rest of the county according to Washington County Public Health.
“Our recommendation if you have a fever remain home until 24 hours after the fever has broken without the use of fever-reducing medication, which means no Tylenol, no Advil. School officials are defining a fever as anything 100 degrees and up,” she said. “So if you had a fever at 1 p.m. Tuesday, don’t come back to school the next day; you’re still likely to be contagious.”
“We want to make sure they’re not coming back too soon,” Hover said.
To combat the flu, Hover and public health officials recommend anyone from 6 months to 24 years of age get the seasonal flu shot and H1N1 vaccine.
“Unfortunately, no one has any,” she said.
The best defense against the flu remains a regimen of strict hand washing and basic precautions.
Hover emphasized the flu is spread by direct contact, coughing, sneezing, sharing drinks of any kind, or sharing items that come into contact with the mouth like a well-chewed pen or pencil or touching affected surfaces.
“And no touching your face with your hands; that’s how the virus is going to get in. That’s the portal,” she said.
Hover said proper etiquette also goes a long way in students, teachers and staff keeping one another from getting sick. People should cough not into a tissue or their hands but into the crook of their elbow. This method muffles the cough or sneezes and keeps hands from getting contaminated.
“That’s exactly how it spreads. You think you’re covering your mouth but it’s like a little bomb in front of your mouth — people breathe it in and can get sick,” Hover said.
Washington County Public Health Director Patty Hunt said countywide cases of influenza are on the rise as well as across the state and the country.
Although testing to confirm it is not widespread, Hunt said, the predominant strain locally is believed to be influenza A, or seasonal flu.
Hunt said reports of doctor visits and absenteeism at work and school are up as residents seem to be observing precautions and staying home when they believe they are ill and others are just plain out sick.
Hunt said Washington County does not have plans to host any flu shot clinics in the immediate future, but will when the supply is sufficient. When, is a question she said she could not answer.
In a typical year the county orders a large amount of vaccine and receives it in bulk. At least in part due to the increased demand, the supply has trickled in from the Centers for Disease Control to the states and has been distributed based on population from that point, she said.
This dispersal method makes hosting a clinic impossible because supplies are just too small for anticipated demand, Hunt said.
“There will be more of (it) as time goes on,” Hunt said. “We’re just not sure when we’ll have enough of it to go out and offer clinics. We thought it would be by now.”
Although supply makes the vaccine hard to get now, that is no reason to go without, she said.
Public Health expects the infection rate to peak and eventually recede “to burn itself out” but it remains unclear if flu infections will surge again during what is the typical flu season — December through April.
For that reason, Hunt said, getting vaccinated is recommended.
Public Health recommends those who have regular medical care to use that option because it frees up their supply for people who are most in need or don’t have insurance. Hunt recommended calling physician’s offices or medical clinics.
Not only will this allow residents to canvas a larger area faster, but it will prevent walk-ins crowding in the offices as well as exposure to those who are in seeking treatment and are already sick.
“If you can manage it, (seek vaccination) over the phone and stay home. Rest, make sure you get plenty of fluids and then go in if it gets worse,” Hunt said,
Despite delays in getting the vaccine, Hunt said, Washington County residents should all seek inoculation as soon as possible.
“It’s not too late. The flu season can last into April,” Hunt said.
“We don’t know what the future holds; get vaccinated and it will help,” Hunt said.
Hunt said people might be tired of hearing it, but one of the best precautions against being infected includes “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” which include washing hands with soap and warm water, covering the face when coughing or sneezing and staying home when starting to feel ill.
“If you’re sick coughing, with a sore throat and fever, stay home so as not to affect other people,” she said.
On Church Street, Telescope Casual Furniture was experiencing an elevated level of absences from illness similar to that of the rest of the community.
“Even though we have had our run of illness here at Telescope, we are trying to stay on top of it. We have put notices, computer messages and e-mails out to all employees stating that if they are sick, we want them to stay home,” Telescope safety director Melanie Castle said in an e-mail.
“We are requiring our employees to be fever-free for 24 hours before we are allowing them to return to work. Our flexibility to deal with family illnesses is definitely in place right now, too. We have had to excuse employees to manage their sick family members at home.”
Castle said the average illness has lasted three to five days for employees. “I use the term ‘illness’ instead of ‘flu’ because our office has only had one doctor’s note that excused the absence of an employee due to influenza,” she said.
Nurse Colleen Bates, a clinical staff member at the Mettowee Valley Family Health Center in West Pawlet, Vt., said the past two weeks have been pretty busy due to H1N1 concerns. Although concern about the flu in its various forms is warranted, television news has raised the fears of some and driven them to the doctor’s office, Bates said. “People panicking a bit,” she said.
“They’re scaring people with the numbers (of people who have died from H1N1), but those (fatalities) usually have an underlying problem,” she said.
“It’s no worse than season flu (in effects) but it’s something new and people are afraid of it,” Bates said.
Bates echoed other health professionals in advising people to continue to try to get vaccinated regardless of how long it may take. “Still try to get it because it is out there,” she said.
Bates said she thought production of H1N1 vaccine had delayed production of the seasonal fl
u vaccine and now both are somewhat difficult to find. The clinic had H1N1 vaccine, but it is only giving it to certain at-risk people until it has more.
“We ordered our regular amount of season flu vaccine and we’ve probably only received about one third of our order – that’s where we’re at with that,” Bates said.
The staff at the clinic have been advising those seeking the vaccines, but not among a risk group, to contact other sources.
“We have had to target certain groups and we have been referring (others) to the Visiting Nurse Association in Vermont or to Public Health in New York,” Bates said.
The phone has been ringing off the hook at the clinic with one nurse spending about 80 percent of her time of the phone with people talking about the flu, she said.
Bates’ recommendation is to stay home and do the same thing – call the doctor’s office – because most people have symptoms that do not require use of Tamiflu or hospitalization.
Back at the school the illness and associated precautions are taking their toll on attendance numbers.
Interim superintendent Dr. Greg Aidala said typical attendance rates for this time period ran between 95-97 percent with 3-5 percent of the population absent for various reasons.
During the past two weeks he said the rate expanded to average 50 students out per day; Oct. 27 he said the high school was missing a high of 101 students.
The rate had soared recently to approximately 13.5 percent of the population, an increase of 10 percent over what would be expected for this time of year, which he said could be related directly to the flu and flu-management policies.
“The time was when you had a head cold you still got up and would go to school. Now parents are keeping kids at home,” Aidala said. Aidala said he was pleased to see parents and students observing those precautions.
The district is giving “rightful attention to the situation, telling parents to take the precaution and keep children home,” he said, and this is contributing directly to the higher absentee rates.
Aidala said he also recently sent out a memo to the custodial staff reminding them to take extra precautions with communal surfaces from stairwell railings to desks, doorknobs and computer keyboards; places the flu was likely to be spread by direct contact.
“As always we will continue to monitor the situation,” Aidala said.