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Island County hammered hard by H1N1 flu virus

The new flu is hitting Island County hard, especially at area schools, with student absentee rates reaching a record high this week.

Meanwhile, the county is out of seasonal flu vaccine until probably next month or perhaps December, and is getting only a dribble of H1N1 vaccine, county health official say.

“It’s all H1N1,” Dr. Roger Case, Island County health officer, said of the current cases in the county. He was referring to the new virus controversially called “swine flu.”

“We have a lot of flu on the island,” Case said. “Thankfully, so far it’s been pretty mild, milder than the seasonal flu for the most part.”

“Of course, it isn’t mild to people who have it,” he added. “They’re pretty miserable.”

Ask Angie Coomber, 15, of Langley, a freshman at South Whidbey High School, who was hit hard for eight days by the H1N1 virus.

“I’ve been sick before, but never had the flu like this,” she said Thursday. “It wasn’t pleasant.”

Case said six county residents were hospitalized this week with flu symptoms, and that two patients with symptoms had died. He said it’s not known if the virus contributed to the deaths. Test results are pending.

Both patients were older than 65; H1N1 typically strikes younger people, he said.

Case said H1N1 is transmitted by surface contact and isn’t airborne. He urged everyone to wash their hands with soap at least a dozen times per day, and to go home and stay there if the virus strikes.

“Keeping your hands clean is the most basic and effective way to curtail the spread of this thing,” he said.

Symptoms can include a headache and sore throat, followed by a cough, body aches, dizziness and extreme fatigue. Some victims experience a fever, others don’t, Case said.

Coomber said she and two friends were studying together at her house one night last week. All three became ill during the night.

“It came on really fast,” she said.

Her throat became sore and swelled, she suffered a high fever for four days, even while taking ibuprofen, and she lost all appetite for food. When the fever subsided, she got a severe cough, which she’s still battling.

“My parents didn’t want me to come out of my room,” she said. A doctor told her she had H1N1.

Only hospitalized patients, and patients who die are currently being tested for H1N1 in Washington state.

But in all the recent flu tests so far, “99.9 percent of the cases have been H1N1,” he said.

Case said the county is getting about 800 doses per week of H1N1 vaccine, which are being reserved for children ages 6 months to 4 years, and for healthcare workers.

Pregnant women, children and young adults are considered to be the most at-risk.

Case said the county has received and distributed two-thirds of its order for seasonal-flu vaccine at area clinics, and that the rest is likely to be available by December.

A shortfall in the vaccines has been noted in much of the United States this year.

Meanwhile, South Whidbey School District officials said 11 percent of its student population of about 1,600 was absent on Monday. Oak Harbor schools have reported absenteeism as high as 26 percent in the past two weeks, Case said.

South Whidbey school officials said absenteeism hit 8 to 9 percent last week, and climbed to 11 percent earlier this week, before slacking off.

On Monday, 64 of 568 students were reported absent from the elementary school, 46 of 413 from Langley Middle School and 67 of

571 from the high school, officials said. Bayview School reported three of its 51 students absent.

Marcia Statz, district nurse for the high school and middle school, said Thursday that teachers have been urged to send droopy students to the nurse’s office as quickly as possible.

“Our biggest concern is to get them home, get them comfortable and get them taken care of,” Statz said.

She said the flu is hitting students much harder than teachers, and the most common mistake by parents is to send the students back to school before the illness has run its course, typically four to five days.

“They may look perky laying on the couch, but it’s different if they come to school,” Statz said. “They just can’t make it through the day.”

“Keep the kids home,” she said. “Don’t send them back too soon.”

“This is having a significant impact on parents who work,” she added. “They have my sympathy.”

She urged all parents to provide the school with an emergency contact number for someone on the island. It doesn’t have to be a family member, just someone no more than 20 minutes away.

“It doesn’t do a lot of good if the emergency contact is grandma in Marysville,” Statz said, adding that just this week, two flu-struck students had to wait more than two hours in the nurse’s office for a ride home.

Statz said many ill students, especially high schoolers, return to school earlier than advised because they don’t want to miss exams and labs. She said the district is encouraging teachers to let absent students complete assignments on-line whenever possible.

Coomber said her mother picked up her homework from school, but “I was too sick to do it.” She returned to school Wednesday, and is trying to catch up.

“The teachers have been really understanding and forgiving,” she said.

Case said Whidbey General Hospital has restricted patient visits by children younger than 12, and is screening other visitors for flu-like symptoms.

The H1N1 virus was identified in April as a reassortment of four known strains of influenza A virus, according to health officials.

One was a strain found in humans, one in birds and two were unique to pigs, hence the name “swine.”

Millions of cases of H1N1 virus have been reported across the U.S., but most have been less severe than those caused by the past few seasonal viruses, health officials say.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Ga., predicted earlier this year that half the U.S. population would get the flu before the strains run their course this season.

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