- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

Government officials recommend that schools only shut down if there is a drastic number of students sick with the swine flu this fall, according to updated federal guidelines announced Friday.

Affected people are advised to stay home at least 24 hours after they no longer have a fever of 100 degrees or greater, under the new guidelines that officials said are meant to help decrease the spread of flu among students and school staff during the 2009-10 school year. A previous recommendation said people should stay home for one week and schools should stay closed for about two weeks if swine flu, or the H1N1 virus, was suspected.

“We know from the spring that where there was H1N1 there were very large explosive outbreaks in schools,” Thomas Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in announcing the updated guidelines during a news conference Friday.

But he said experts now know more about the way the virus evolves and spreads. “We know now that closing schools is not the best option in most cases,” he said.

To date, about 1 million people in the U.S. have been infected with the virus. Globally, nearly 800 people have died from it.

The aim still is to decrease contagion, but, in addition to new medical analyses, questions were raised about educational and financial costs and personal disruption to affected populations that number in the millions. An estimated 55 million students and 7 million staff members attend or work in more than 130,000 U.S. public and private schools daily.

The new stand is a more lenient approach than the one taken last spring, when an immediate shutdown was advised at the first sign of the H1N1 virus, considered the more infectious and volatile flu strain. Studies done since then on consequences of the spread of influenza-like illnesses led to the new strategies, according to the CDC, which has issued a lengthy technical report for local and state officials who make key public health decisions.

The CDC also recommends that students and staff members showing any flulike symptoms in school be separated from others and be sent home. Health care providers should anticipate the need for wearing appropriate personal protective equipment. Renewed emphasis should be given to routine hand-washing with soap and water or alcohol-based hand cleaners. Common sense says that people should cover the nose and mouth with a tissue or any available cloth when coughing or sneezing and then trashing the tissue after use.

Also, the agency says, if the outbreak proves to be more severe than expected, students and staff members at high risk should remain at home, and school children living in households with people who are likely to be affected should stay home for five days from the date of detection.

H1N1 is considered dangerous and even life-threatening to certain vulnerable groups, including young healthy people, pregnant women and seniors with chronic illnesses.

A two-shot flu vaccine program is expected to begin nationwide in October to cover both a seasonal flu and H1N1 outbreak.

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