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School nurses vow to take down the flu

Fort Worth Star-Telegram - 1/12/2018

Jan. 12--FORT WORTH -- School nurse Susan Hurst can't see the enemy, but she knows the flu is lurking at North Hi Mount Elementary, on students' hands or coughed out through the air.

Hurst, a registered nurse a the Fort Worth elementary school, is trying to prevent an influenza outbreak. She's on alert for flu symptoms and ready to help Tarrant County Public Health track cases. Her strongest tools for defense: soap and water.

"Washing gets rid of the germs," she said.

As classes geared up after winter break, school nurses drew the battle lines.

Fort Worth, Carroll and Mansfield school districts are among those reminding parents on social media how to prevent the flu. As winter break ended, parents in Fort Worth schools received an alert from Superintendent Kent Scribner that linked to seasonal flu precautions.

"We are really trying to work through the possible impact by making sure our staff and students stay home if they are sick," said Alice Turner-Jackson, director of health services for Fort Worth schools.

Last week, the percentage of influenza-like illness in Tarrant County was 8.8 percent which is high, said Russ Jones, chief epidemiologist for Tarrant County Public Health. While that percentage reflects a slight drop from the previous week, Jones said he expects data from this week to show an uptick.

The Tarrant County Public Health weekly flu report was released Friday, showing an increase in positive test results, Jones said -- 32.5 percent were positive last week. Most of the positive results were for Influenza A. Data also indicates that Tarrant County's flu victims were older last week -- 46.7 percent were ages 24-64.

But Jones said it makes sense to attack the flu at schools with prevention information. Campuses are the heart of neighborhoods, he said adding that school nurses work hard to spot students with coughs, runny noses and fever.

Jones said school nurses stress that youngsters with fever should stay home to prevent outbreaks. Sick youngsters can expose students with compromised immune systems. Students with chronic diseases, such as asthma or Type 2 diabetes, are especially vulnerable, he said.

"All of these people go to school," Jones said. "It is a microcosm of our community."

North Hi Mount, which has 415 students, hadn't documented a surge in absences as of Thursday, said Principal Myrna Blanchard. Still, school leaders stressed the need for sick youngsters to stay home. She reminded families that school work can be made up.

"We want them healthy so they can learn," Blanchard said.

Tracking the flu

Health officials predicted a severe flu season for North Texas. In recent days, flu-related calls to emergency personnel surged. On Wednesday, Tarrant County Public Health announced the first three flu-related deaths in Tarrant County.

The deaths all involved senior adults (55 and older) with underlying medical conditions. No other health information was released. In Dallas County, 26 flu-related deaths were recorded as of Thursday.

Last week, Cook Children's Health Care System documented 237 cases of Influenza A and 46 cases of Influenza B. While the numbers are down compared to the previous week, the hospital's emergency department was very busy this week, said Kim Brown, a spokesperson with Cook Children's. Health officials there anticipate three to four weeks of high flu activity.

Health officials and several area school officials said they didn't have complete school absence data related to flu or influenza-like illnesses this week, because students had just returned from winter break and the reasons for absences have not yet been recorded accurately.

Tarrant-area school districts help county public health officials track flu-related absences through a voluntary electronic system. Nurses upload information into the system.

Aledo schools are experiencing an increase in flu-related cases. Last year, there were seven reported cases of confirmed flu in Aledo schools for the first week of January. This year, for the same time period, there were 69 reported cases.

Jones said that data was incomplete this week and expected to have better information next week.

Turner-Jackson said absences recorded at Fort Worth schools were typical for this time of year. On Thursday, nurses tallied 460 absences related to flu-like illness.

"I don't think we have anything to be alarmed about right now," she said.

Hurst-Euless-Bedford schools, which started classes on Jan. 4, did not experience an increase in absences this week. Three of 34 Birdville schools experienced increased absences believed to be related to the flu, but numbers were not available.

'On the front lines'

Turner-Jackson said they are reminding students and staff to wash their hands with soap and water. If hand washing is not possible, they're asked to use hand sanitizer. Administrators have encouraged staff to get flu shots.

"We are asking them to cough into their sleeves or inside of their elbows," she said, adding that this helps minimize the risk of hand contamination.

Turner-Jackson said school nurses -- the district has 132 -- are reiterating the message.

"We are doing our best to curtail any transmission of flu germs," she said.

At North Hi Mount, Hurst said there were three diagnosed flu cases in November. During winter break, a teacher and her two sons had the flu.

This week, Hurst checked the symptoms of students who arrived at her office complaining of being sick. She also donned a "Mr. Germ" hat to show students how germs are present even if they are not visible. She used body paint that's visible in the dark to show students how germs lurk everywhere. She demonstrated how hand washing can get rid of germs.

She said students should wash thoroughly for the amount of time it takes to sing "Happy Birthday," twice.

"I think the school nurse is on the front lines of handling outbreaks," Hurst said.

This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Diane A. Smith: 817-390-7675, @dianeasmith1


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