Flu strain hits Exeter early, hard

By Carolyn Barbre & Reggie Ellis

At least 400 students a day are missing school in Exeter due to the flu epidemic spreading across the nation.

Diana Eddy, attendance clerk at Exeter Union High School, said 150-200 students a day are out sick, many of them for an entire week of school.

"It's probably going to pick up going into the Christmas break," Eddy said.

Eddy said she started to notice the trend on Monday, Dec. 1, the first the day back from the Thanksgiving holiday. In one extreme case, a P.E. class with 53 students enrolled had 14 gone on one day.

Linda Watkins, health clerk at Lincoln Elementary School, said more than 650 students have stayed home or left school because of the flu. She said 30 students a day are sent home with high fever, vomiting, pounding headaches and severe stomach cramps. Most of them need three to five days to recover before returning to school.

"In 20 years at this school this is the worst I have seen it," Watkins said. "Many of the teachers are toughing it out but I can see it coming for them soon."

Deputy Superintendent Diane Graziani said the flu has already depleted the district's supply of healthy substitutes ready to fill in for sick teachers. School nurses weren't immune either. Rocky Hill Elementary School's health clerk Debbie McAlpine said she had to send herself home prior to the Thanksgiving holiday.

"I was one of the first to get it this year," she said.

McAlpine said at least 30 students a day come to her office complaining of flu-like symptoms. She sends about a third of them home. McAlpine, who was sick for about three days, said the flu-strain is stronger this year. She said in addition to students and staff being bitten by the flu bug they are also suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis, strep throat and other respiratory related illnesses.

"That's what is taking them so long to recover," McAlpine said. "They aren't just fighting flu. Many of them are fighting off more than one thing."

The predominant flu strain reported around the country is Type-A Fujian, which is slightly different from Type-A Panama, one of three strains that this year's vaccine was designed to prevent. According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this year's flu shots and nasal vaccine formulation should prevent most cases of the new strain, although some vaccinated people will probably become infected. They said for those who get the flu, the vaccine should lessen its severity. However, the CDC said the national death toll from the flu that has been averaging about 36,000 could double this year.

So far hospitals and doctors report that the flu is hitting children the hardest. Confirmed flu cases have increased in the last couple of weeks, particularly in Central California according to the state Department of Health Services.

Children's Hospital Central California in Madera has had 624 flu cases, verified by lab tests, in the last eight weeks compared to less than 50 at this time last year, officials said. Less than 25 had to be hospitalized and there have been no deaths related to the flu. The hospital only treated 170 cases for all of last year.

As of Nov. 12, all children ages 12 and under were restricted from visiting patients or entering patient care areas at Children's Hospital because of a rise in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The restriction will be in effect through the end of March. Manager of infection control at the hospital Gregg Pullen said the number of cases has taxed emergency departments to the maximum. He described it as "pretty close to a crisis."

In Porterville, children younger than 13 cannot be on any of Sierra View District Hospital's upper floors, said Lucie Garcia, the hospital's director of community relations.

Signs posted throughout Kaweah Delta District Hospital warn people of a "winter virus alert" and ask that if they have a cold or runny nose to remain in the waiting room. If adults have to visit a patient, signs ask that they keep their visits short and not touch items in patient rooms or in medical-care areas. As of Dec. 1, children younger than 12 are no longer allowed to visit patients this winter, said Ron Ballecer, director of marketing and public relations at Kaweah Delta.

"We recognize that this is going to be an inconvenience to some, but when you look at the big picture, we're trying to safeguard our patients," he said.

RSV is the most common cause of serious respiratory infection in infants and children under four. It is so common that most children will have had at least one RSV infection before three years of age.

Most children who get RSV have mild cold symptoms - stuffy nose, cough or sore throat. However, newborns, infant, and children with chronic medical conditions may contract a more severe infection, even requiring hospitalization.

Steps to avoid RSV infection:

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