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Connection unclear between flu and recent absenteeism

September 16, 2009|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Absentee rates increased this month at two Washington County public schools, but it's not clear if there's a connection to H1N1 flu, the school system said in letters to parents.

The schools are Smithsburg Elementary and Springfield Middle.

"Although lab results are not available to confirm that these students have H1N1 (Swine) Flu, precautions are being taken to minimize the spread of H1N1 and all influenzas in the school," the school system's letters say.

As of Wednesday, the Washington County Health Department and Washington County Public Schools said they still knew of only two confirmed H1N1 cases in the school system -- one at Conococheague Elementary School, the other at Rockland Woods Elementary School.

The school system announced the Conococheague case Aug. 31 and the Rockland Woods case Sept. 9.

The school system sent the letter about high absenteeism to Smithsburg Elementary parents and guardians Sept. 9. The Springfield Middle letter was dated Sept. 15.

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The school system provided copies of the letters -- which are identical, other than the school names -- to The Herald-Mail on Wednesday.

As of the first week of September, the health department said there had been five confirmed H1N1 cases in the county, including the one at Conococheague Elementary.

The following week, the school system reported the Rockland Woods Elementary case.

Health department spokesman Rod MacRae said there might have been other cases within the county, but they haven't been confirmed and the department doesn't always hear about them.

He said it's no longer essential to test specifically for H1N1 flu or for health departments to report individual confirmed cases because it's widely understood that the H1N1 strain has spread.

"Although there is little laboratory typing that is being done for individual cases, it is widely assumed that the majority of current influenza-like illnesses (up to 98% according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC]) are the result of the H1N1 strain of Type A influenza," the health department said in a statement Wednesday.

The CDC is continuing to report deaths and hospitalizations attributed to H1N1 flu.

Even before the spread of H1N1, influenza has been a significant health concern. The state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has said that about 1,000 Marylanders die each year from seasonal flu or its complications.

The school system has put together an H1N1 flu information packet for students, parents and staff.

The packet says the district is working to prevent the spread of germs by making hand sanitizers more available, cleaning areas and surfaces that are touched more frequently, and letting students wash their hands more frequently.

The health department said in its statement that it has been working closely with the school system "to monitor illness and absenteeism and to assist in implementing appropriate preventive measures."

When the absentee rate at a school hits 10 percent, the school system sends out a notice to parents, district spokesman Richard Wright said.

The Smithsburg Elementary and Springfield Middle letters have been the only two, he said.

MacRae said high absenteeism could be because of illness, but also could be the result of concerned parents keeping children home from school.

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