Thursday, August 27, 2009

State, Local Schools Working Together to Address the Flu Season and Novel H1N1 Virus

Georgia’s colleges and universities and local school systems are making preparations to deal with the possible spread of the novel H1N1 flu virus.

“This year, Georgia faces a unique challenge in planning for and handling concerns about the H1N1 flu virus in our schools,” said Governor Sonny Perdue, who sent a letter this week to local school superintendents informing them of plans to continue close communications from the state. “The state is working closely with local systems and our colleges and universities to ensure we are responding in a way that will limit the spread of the virus and reduce the impact on our students.”

Earlier this year, State Superintendent of Schools Kathy Cox and Georgia Department of Community Health Commissioner Rhonda Medows jointly communicated to local school superintendents outlining some of the steps that should be taken to prepare. In addition, Commissioner Medows will host a teleconference with superintendents tomorrow, and another is already planned for next week as well. Georgia DOE has a website for information about the H1N1 virus – . Similar joint communications have also been sent from Commissioner Medows and University System Chancellor Erroll Davis to university and college presidents and from Commissioner Medows and Technical System Commissioner Ron Jackson to technical college presidents.

“In addition to practicing good hand hygiene, we are encouraging everyone – both students and teachers – to receive the seasonal flu shot,” Commissioner Medows said. “Those who become ill with flu symptoms should recover at home and remember to cover their mouths when coughing to reduce the spread to family and friends.”

Schools can take some simple, temporary steps to help limit the spread of the virus and reduce the workload on the public health system. For example, the state is recommending that schools not require a doctor’s note for a student to return to school because of the increased burden it places on doctors’ offices already busy treating those currently ill. Also, any students and staff that are ill should be separated from others until they can be taken home. Frequent hand-washing is encouraged, as well as the use of hand sanitizers, particularly before snacks, meals and after bathroom breaks. Schools should also reduce any focus on perfect attendance programs, which often encourage sick students to come to school when they should be at home.

“I know that the news about H1N1 Flu is unsettling for parents, students and educators, but I would encourage everyone to focus on preparation and prevention. Since last spring, the Georgia Department of Education has been working closely with the Georgia Division of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control on this issue,” added Superintendent Cox. “We have been regularly communicating with our local school districts and providing them with guidance, best practices and the most up-to-date information we have. Additionally, we are working with state and federal officials on plans for a mass vaccination program involving schools, should that be the recommendation of the health experts.”

In addition to precautions taken at school, parents and students can also take some simple steps to protect themselves, such as following basic personal hygiene practices such as covering the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing. Also, the Division of Public Health is recommending citizens receive the seasonal flu shot to protect against that separate strain of flu. It is also important for parents to seek care from a doctor when a child develops flu symptoms, particularly for vulnerable populations such as those with asthma or other chronic illnesses. Parents should plan for the possibility that they may have to stay home with a sick child.

“Every TCSG college should assist our faculty, staff and students with specific information to prevent the spread of the flu, including the H1N1 virus,” said Commissioner Jackson. “Knowing what to do, including practicing good hygiene, understanding flu symptoms, and seeking medical attention if sick are all essential preventative steps. It is important that our colleges work hard to help to contain the spread of the flu, especially given the size of our college system and the fact that there are thousands of people on our campuses who are studying and learning in close proximity to each other.”

The University System of Georgia has been preparing for months, well in advance of the H1N1 arrival in Georgia. USG institutions continue to work with health officials in their immediate area, monitor local conditions and increase campus community awareness of simple preventative measures. Some institutions are providing hand sanitizer dispensers in food service areas and restrooms as well as handing out small personal bottles of sanitizer.

Institutions continue to remain vigilant, share information from reliable, reputable sources and adjust emergency plans as necessary to meet the changing challenges of H1N1. All institutions have existing pandemic flu plans which include the designation of an institution pandemic response coordinator. Based on the challenges of H1N1, many institutions have adjusted their pandemic flu plans and continue to meet and talk with campus response/planning committees.

“Ensuring the health and safety of our campuses remains our utmost concern,” said Chancellor Davis. “We will continue to coordinate with local and state public health officials as we monitor and respond to any reported cases at our 35 institutions.”

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