As extracurricular activities between Texas schools were being delayed and other educational institutions were rescheduling events, representatives of Brown County schools met Wednesday with local health and emergency preparedness officials to discuss contingency plans regarding possible swine flu outbreaks.
“There’s nothing in Brown County at this point,” Jennifer McNiece, public health preparedness coordinator for the Brownwood-Brown County Health Department, said.
Confirmed or suspected cases of swine flu, a strain of the “A” flu virus that wasn’t factored into this year’s influenza vaccine, are beginning to climb in Texas after a serious outbreak was identified in Mexico. Other cases are being reported throughout the United States, and in other countries worldwide.
“We’re trying to dispel some fear,” Shannon Young DeLa Cruz, R.N., infection control specialist at Brownwood Regional Medical Center, said. “This is just the flu.” Treatments are available for patients who get this flu, just like other strains, and it’s no more contagious than other strains. The focus, however, needs to be on prevention.”
“This is flu, and we need to react like this is the flu,” McNiece said. “Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze, wash your hands and don’t go to school or work if you feel sick. Then see a doctor.”
Nevertheless, Early School Superintendent Brett Koch described the UIL’s decision Wednesday to delay academic and athletic competition until at least May 11 as “unprecedented.” State advisories are also urging public gatherings to be delayed or canceled, although no specific recommendations or guidelines have been offered school leaders.
McNiece emphasized that the situation has not grown to a point where health officials are making recommendations about what schools should do if a flu case is confirmed. Those decisions are in the hands of individual school districts, but Koch said the precedent of closing a campus where a student tests positive has already been set. And no guidelines have yet been received from state education officials, he said.
Representatives of Brownwood, Early, Bangs and Brookesmith school districts and Howard Payne University attended the one-hour meeting with city and county officials.
McNiece described the flu situation as “fluid, one that changes hourly,” and said citizens can find reliable information on Web sites operated by the Texas Department of State Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Links to those sites and other local information can be found on the City of Brownwood’s Web site, www.ci.brownwood.
tx.us, and Brownwood Regional Medical Center’s Web site, www.brmc-cares.com.
The state has established a toll-free telephone number for citizens to obtain information at (888) 777-5320.
Local officials described the actions being taken by Texas schools and public officials as preventative measures, adding that extensive coverage by the national news media has heightened concerns.
This strain of flu, McNiece said, has been in the United States since the 1930s, but has not usually spread beyond the one or two cases identified in most years. That means a limited percentage of the population has an immunity to it.
Also fanning concerns is the planning that has been under way in recent years for a possible flu pandemic, caused by mutations of an existing flu virus like avian — or perhaps swine — flu.
“We don’t want to get swallowed up by panic,” McNiece said.
“Just get the right information,” Del Albright, emergency management coordinator for the City of Brownwood, said, referring citizens to trust information on the above Web sites and from meetings with local groups.
Brownwood City Manager Bobby Rountree agreed, saying that rumor control has been critical in communities where cases have been confirmed.
Rachel “Rae” McClary-Ransier, marketing director at Brownwood Regional Medical Center, said area physicians, clinics and the hospital emergency room are prepared to test for any flu virus. She urged anyone who has traditional flu symptoms to seek medical care, and not just stay home.
McNiece said a “rapid” test can determine whether a patient has flu and whether it’s the “A” strain that includes swine flu. If it is flu, and can’t be further identified, a sample is sent to the regional health department for testing and it’s considered a “suspect” case of swine flu. If it can’t be typed there, the sample goes to the CDC and it’s considered a “probable” case.
DeLa Cruz said the traditional flu season is nearing a close, but late spikes in the number of cases are not uncommon. The fact that the usual flu season is nearing an end may work in the public’s favor.
On Tuesday, the UIL Academic State Meet originally scheduled for May 7-9 was delayed until a date to be announced. One-Act Play contests for Class 3A schools and smaller will also be rescheduled. Regional track meets planned this weekend will be held as part of the state meet now set for May 14-16. State UIL golf and tennis events will be held May 11. No interschool games will take place until May 11 for either softball or baseball. More details can be found on today’s sports page.
In another development, commencement ceremonies and exercises planned in Abilene Friday and Saturday for Texas State Technical College-West Texas students have been postponed.
“We have not reached these decisions without a great deal of thought and study,” Mike Reeser, president, said. “We know this outcome can be disappointing to many. However, we have postponed these events because we believe it to be in the overall best interest of our students, employees and their families. We firmly believe that an abundance of caution is appropriate in this matter.”