Schools have plan for pandemic flu
By Ed Baker
Mon May 05, 2008, 02:03 PM EDT
A pandemic flu outbreak could force the schools to close for up to four weeks, or more if 30 percent of the district’s students and teachers become ill.
Weymouth High School would become a secondary hospital to receive patients who are seriously ill if South Shore Hospital is inundated during a pandemic.
“When you get to a 30 percent absenteeism rate, it will be time to close the schools down,” said Elaine Pisciottoli, a coordinator for the school district’s emergency crisis response management during a recent school committee meeting.
Pandemic flu is a virulent influenza that spreads throughout a region when it can’t be checked by a person’s natural immune system or a vaccine.
A worldwide pandemic caused approximately 50 million deaths during a series of three outbreaks as World War I was coming to an end in 1918-19.
The pandemic claimed 675,000 Americans between Sept. 1, 1918 and Jan. 16, 1919.
Approximately 45,000 of these deaths included Massachusetts’s residents.
Most deaths occurred because of complications brought on by influenza such as pneumonia.
The Bay State was the staging state for the pandemic in the U.S. when the first reported cases of virulent influenza occurred among several sailors stationed at Commonwealth Pier in Boston on Aug. 27, 1918. The infection spread rapidly among the sailors and the state’s civilian population within weeks.
Authorities throughout the U.S. responded to the crisis by closing public facilities such as movie theaters, schools, and concert halls when the influenza infection rate was at its worst.
Pisciottoli said a response to a pandemic in Weymouth would include preventive measures such as closing the schools to keep the virus from spreading and education youngsters about basic hygiene to check the disease.
“The awareness education involves teaching children to do basic things like cover their mouths while coughing,” Pisciottoli said. “We need to teach children proper hygiene.”
Nurses and teachers are already teaching some of these prevention measures in the school district.
Pisciottoli said efforts to contain a pandemic would include having teachers wear facemasks while in the classroom.
South Shore Hospital recently donated 1,000 face masks to the teachers..
Pisciottoli said school officials will have to setup contingency plans to keep the district’s basic functions going such as paying teachers and operation costs if the absenteeism rate among students and teachers tops 30 percent or more during a pandemic.
“People have to eat, and they have to be paid,” she said. “We also need to keep students learning if the schools are closed. If the schools are closed between four and six weeks ,there has to be a (academic) plan in place. We have met with curriculum coordinators.”
Pisciottoli said the school’s websites might be useful for providing instruction in math, English, science, and social studies if the schools must remain closed during a lengthy period.
Mayor Susan Kay, a school committee member, said the pandemic response plan is well thought out.
“It is nice to see such a full plan in place for the school department,” she said.
Committee Chairman Sean Guilfoyle additionally said the plan is well thought out.
“Was this plan drawn up in response to the concern about bird flu,” he said.
Pisciottoli said the procedures are meant to address an outbreak of bird flu or a pandemic virus.
The pandemic response plan got high grades from Jean Afzali, a registered nurse who serves the school district as coordinator of health services.
“It is a very well thought out plan,” she said on Wednesday, April 30. “They reviewed the plan with the board of health to get their opinion on it.”
The school’s nurses will meet with Pisciottoli and Annis Remsen, an emergency crisis response coordinator, on May 14 to review the plan.
Afzali said school staff and emergency response groups at most levels have done a lot of planning for a pandemic.
“The Massachusetts Department of Health has a huge flu care campaign program for people to use in their homes,” she said. “If people know how to take care of somebody who has the flu, they will be better prepared to handle a pandemic if it hits us.”
Details on flu treatment and basic hygiene are listed on the schools’ websites.
“We try to keep the information up to date,” Afzali said. “One of the things we practiced last fall was a pandemic flu drill at the high school.”
Afzali said the potential for a pandemic to occur is present because of modern day travel.
“We are even more globally connected today than we were in 1918,” she said. “People are coming on planes into the country from other countries, and germs can be spread more quicker than ever as a result.”
She said the best prevention against developing the flu during a pandemic or at any time is following basic hygiene.
“People should wash their hands before they touch their faces,” Afzali said. “If they have to cough or sneeze they should do so in the crux of their elbow and not their hands. If everybody can realize a need to cough or sneeze into their elbow we will be better off during a pandemic.”
(Historical information about a pandemic flu for this report was provided Pandemicflu.gov, a federal website.)