- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009

Maryland health officials announced Wednesday that six probable cases of swine flu have been reported in the state, the first suspected cases in the region of what health officials fear could become a global pandemic.

Two of the suspected cases involved schoolchildren, but officials said they have no plans to close their schools.

John Colmers, Maryland’s secretary of health and mental hygiene, said six state residents are suspected of contracting the virus, including two children. Three of the suspected cases are in Anne Arundel County, and three are in Baltimore County.

Frances Phillips, deputy secretary of health and mental hygiene, said all of the suspected cases involve people who either recently traveled to Mexico or whose relatives did.

One case involves a student at Folger McKinsey Elementary School in Severna Park in Anne Arundel County, while the other child attends Millford Mill Academy in Baltimore County. Tests are being conducted, and results are expected to be released Thursday.

President Obama earlier in the day urged school officials to strongly consider closing schools with suspected or confirmed cases of the virus to prevent a further outbreak, in accordance with guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“School officials should strongly consider temporarily closing so we can be as safe as possible,” Mr. Obama said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said closing the children’s schools in the suspected cases in Maryland was “not prudent,” noting that no other cases of children with flulike symptoms had been reported in the schools. Mr. Colmers also noted that the children have not attended classes since Friday.

Area school officials say they support the idea of closing schools in the case of an outbreak, but how and for how long remains unclear.

In Maryland, decisions to close schools because of a flu outbreak are made primarily by county school and health officials.

“Local officials often know best when to close a school. They deal with cases of flu all the time, so it’s not that unusual,” said Maryland Education Department spokesman Bill Reinhard, who also said that state agencies will not likely become involved in school closings unless there is “a significant outbreak.”

Prince George’s County Public Schools spokesman John White said the county has had a contingency plan in place to deal with a flu pandemic since the Asian bird flu scare of 2003.

“As far as decisions to close a school, those are coordinated according to advice from the county health department,” he said.

In Virginia, officials from local school districts and officials with the state Department of Education said they would follow advice given by the CDC, and that school closings in the event of a suspected case of swine flu are likely.

“We are educators, we are not the health department, and we are not doctors. We have to take the advice of the experts seriously,” said state Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle.

In the District, a city plan requires that school closings be administered by the office of the mayor and the schools chancellor in consultation with the city’s Department of Health.

Virginia health officials set up a statewide hot line to answer questions from residents about the swine flu outbreak. The number is 877/ASK-VDH3. Officials will staff the hot line Thursday and Friday during business hours and then determine if the call center needs to remain open.

The number of confirmed cases Wednesday in the United States increased to 91 in 10 states, up from 64 in five states Tuesday, said Dr. Richard E. Besser, acting director of the CDC. New York has 51 confirmed cases; Texas has 16; California has 14; Kansas, Massachusetts and Michigan have two each; and Arizona, Indiana, Nevada and Ohio have one each.

Hundreds more are suspected in several of the states with confirmed cases.

The Associated Press reported that 10 University of Delaware students are suspected to have the virus. Public health officials said they have identified six students treated Tuesday at the university’s Student Health Services - including one who traveled to Mexico - as having influenza that meets the probable definitions for swine flu.

More than 150 people are suspected to have died from the virus in Mexico - where the outbreak reportedly started - and more than 2,000 people are suspected to have been infected worldwide. The World Health Organization on Wednesday raised its pandemic alert for swine flu to its second highest level, meaning a global outbreak of the virus is imminent.

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