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Flu and strep cases rise sharply in area

A bit delayed in Pagosa Country, flu season appears to have arrived, unlike the expected dump of snow.

As of press time Wednesday, the Archuleta School District 50 Joint reported that almost one-in-four students were either out sick or had been sent home sick during the last few days — with those numbers increasing, said district officials.

However, while the increase in flu cases is especially evident within area classrooms, that spike is not confined to local schools.

According to Stacy Barker, nurse administrator at the San Juan Basin Health Clinic, “Quotes from the state’s MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report) are showing an increase in the flu over the last month, mostly in the ‘B’ strain.”

“We’ve definitely hit our peak time,” Barker added.

The flu has especially raised its head in classrooms throughout the school district. According to the district’s nurse, Maureen Margiotta, “We’ve been running around like crazy, kids have been coming into the office, it seems like, every few minutes.”

Margiotta said, “What’s coming back from the doctors are reports of Influenza A, B and Strep. I’m seeing clusters in classrooms; once one gets it, the rest get it.”

She added that, “For the most part, this is looking like H1N1 from last year.”

Her cautionary note was: “If your child is sick, keep her/him home. Don’t send them to school with a low-grade fever (99° or above) or a persistent cough; send them to the doctor, but not to school.”

Nurses at the elementary and high school said that their schools are experiencing a sharp increase in flu cases over the last week.

In fact, the district sent out notices (through students and through its “ConnectEd” phone system) this week to make parents aware of the gravity of the situation. In that message, District Superintendent Mark DeVoti warned of the recent increase of “flu-like symptoms” among area students, while advising parents to stress preventative measures (see side-bar) and to keep children home if those symptoms arise.

Nevertheless, while nearly 25 percent of area students are out of school, the district currently has no intention of closing schools.

Currently, the district has no guidelines for what would necessitate school closure due to widespread illness.

The problem is hardly restricted to the school district, however.

According to Dr. Nick Kurz at the Pagosa Mountain Clinic, “We’ve seen over 200 cases in the last two weeks, both Influenza A and Influenza B. It’s hot and heavy right now.”

In addition (and verifying reports from the school district), Kurz said, “We’re also seeing increased numbers of cases of Tonsillitis and Strep. We’re seeing double what we normally see.”

Pagosa Mountain Clinic Physicians Assistant Fran Schreiber-Custer said that of the cases seen at the clinic over the past two weeks, “About 80 percent are Influenza A and about 20 percent are Influenza B (for flu cases),” with “temperatures in the range of 102° and 103° degrees.”

Both Kurz and Schreiber-Custer recommended seeing a doctor if a fever of over 102° persists for several days or, if that fever hits 104° or above, to see a doctor immediately.

Kurz said that, once the onset of flu symptoms has hit, treatment with Tamiflu (an antiviral medication that can slow the spread of the virus) is only effective within the first 24-48 hours; after that, the patient is looking at just staying home and using more traditional methods for dealing with the illness — taking whatever over-the-counter medications seem to help, getting plenty of rest, drinking ample fluids and staying home until feeling better.

“It normally runs its course between 5-7 days,” Kurz said.

In fact, universal agreement is that the patient needs to stay home, not only to assist in recovery, but to prevent further spread of the virus. Officials from both the district and Pagosa Mountain Hospital said that sufficient recovery is when a fever has subsided without the aid of medication.

Unfortunately, that is advice that is too often ignored by both parents of sick children and adults.

To a large degree, the economy is playing a large role in how the flu is being addressed and spread throughout the region.

Indeed, while we might think we’re indispensable at the work place, the wisdom of the school district applies: better that one person is out sick rather than an entire office.

Furthermore, parents (especially single parents) without access to child care and who cannot afford to miss work due to a sick child may feel they have no choice but to send that child to school.

Finally, employees in sectors with the most customer contact (i.e. service industries) tend to be those with no health benefits, much less paid sick days — those employees have a vested interest in staying at work, not able to afford any time off. Thus, the cashier, the waitress, the bank teller or the retail salesperson is the person most likely to pass on a case of, well, whatever they have — countless times.

While health agencies throughout the state report that the number of flu cases continues to rise, health care providers say that it is not too late for a flu shot.

Barker said that SJBHC is offering a “trivalent” immunization that not only inoculates against the two most common forms of seasonal flu, but also includes immunization against the H1N1 strain. Barker added that children under the age of 12 will need two shots, with the second scheduled a month after the first inoculation.

Local pharmacies and the Pagosa Mountain Clinic are also offering immunizations.

Kurz said that the flu shot decreases the chance of illness by as much as 50 percent.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), incidents of flu have spiked within the last few weeks, especially in Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Virginia and New York. However, the CDC cautioned that outbreak of flu was most likely inevitable to increase in other states as the virus spreads, recommending flu shots for anyone who has not had the immunization.

Last week, World Health Organization officials warned that an outbreak of H1N1 in the United Kingdom, while not yet epidemic, had the potential for spreading globally, especially to continental Europe and the U.S.

Judy Cole, infection preventionist at Pagosa Mountain Hospital, said that, “It’s absolutely not too late to get a flu shot and, in fact, I recommend it. A flu shot now would be good through the end of May and flu season traditionally ends some time in April. Plus, there’s no shortage of it like there was last year.”

In fact, that shot may be the best bet for not becoming another one of increasing cases of flu. With so many people ignoring medical advice for getting well and preventing the spread of the flu, the number of cases are certain to keep increasing over the next few weeks.