Closed schools get scrub down as King County changes stance

Closed schools get scrub down as King County changes stance
SEATTLE - Schools that closed last week as a swine flu precaution are getting a thorough cleaning while health officials re-think the policy of shutting down a school at the first hint of an infection.

In Everett at Jackson Elementary, which closed last week when a student was suspected of contracting the virus, crews spent Monday morning cleaning and disinfecting the campus, getting it ready to reopen on Tuesday.

"We're going through the rooms that are student occupied," said Gary Jefferis, director of maintenance and operations. "We want to make sure that when our staff and students come back the building is clean and building's healthy and we're ready to go back to school."

The school was set to re-open on Thursday, but with more indications that the swine flu infections are not causing serious harm, officials in Snohomish County changed their mind and announced Monday the school will reopen on Tuesday, May 5.

"We want the school ready and cleaned up for the kids when they do return so they feel good about that," said Principal Janelle Phinney.

King County health officials said Sunday they are dumping their policy of closing schools with a single probable case of swine flu and instead are advising children and faculty to stay home if they are sick.

The new policy was announced as seven more probable swine flu cases emerged in King County and four more in Snohomish County, for a statewide total of 36 known cases.

Updated figures released Sunday now show 22 probable cases in King County, 10 in Snohomish County, two in Spokane County, and one each in Pierce and Skagit counties.

King County officials said the actual number of cases is likely to be much larger, but are not being counted because there is limited lab testing capacity. Only the most serious cases are now being tested, they said.

In Skagit County, health officials are investigating the death of a person who died from pneumonia. "It is unknown if this person died from H1N1 flu. We are following CDC guidelines to test in this situation," said Peter Browning, Director of Skagit County Public Health.

So far, the county has sent samples from 11 people to the state lab for swine flu testing, of which four have tested negative.

State Health Department spokesman Tim Church said formal test results from most of the state's cases should be received from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention early this week.

County health officials said they would no longer order school closures because it is not effective as the number of cases grows.

Instead, the Health Department is advising parents to evaluate their children each day before sending them to school, and to keep them home for seven days if they have any flu symptoms.

"This is really an evolution in thinking - it's an enhanced version of the plan we have every year during flu season," said Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for King County-Seattle Public Health.

He said the new policy was influenced by the fact that the severity of the disease is fairly mild, and also because the number of school closures could mount dramatically if the previous policy were to remain in effect.

"We need to match the policy with reality," Fleming said. "As the ... flu becomes more common, closing individual schools becomes a less valuable measure."

A similar policy also is being introduced in Pierce County and Snohomish County, officials said.

So far, King County schools that were closed earlier have not said whether they will reopen, in light of the new policy. Those schools are:

- Midway Elementary in Des Moines (closed through May 8, reopens May 11)

- Madrona K-8 school in Seattle (closed through May 6, reopens May 7)

- Woodmont Elementary in Des Moines (closed through May 8, reopens May 11)

- Aki Kurose Middle School (closed through May 7, reopens May 8)

- Stevens Elementary School (closed through May 7, reopens May 8)

None of the Washington state cases has been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, but officials expect most or all of them to be confirmed once they are tested.

So far, Fleming said, 99 percent of the probable cases tested by the CDC have been confirmed.

A leading U.S. health expert said Monday that while "there are encouraging signs" of a leveling off in the severity of the swine flu threat, it's still too early to declare the problem under control.

"I'm not ready to say that yet," Dr. Richard Besser, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said when asked about indications by Mexican health authorities that the disease has peaked there.

Besser did tell network television interviewers that "what we're seeing is an illness that looks very much like seasonal flu. But we're not seeing the type of severe disease that we were worrying about." He noted that roughly 36,000 people die each year in this country from the winter flu, so it's still a serious matter.

At least 274 cases of swine flu virus have been confirmed in 35 states so far in the United States, a count by The Associated Press shows. The most recent CDC count was 226 cases in 30 states. The discrepancy can be attributed at least in part to a time lag in state reporting to the federal agency. And in some instances, states have identified "probable" cases that were not confirmed subsequently.

Besser said "we are by no means out of the woods."

"In previous pandemics," he said, "there have been waves and you don't know what this virus is going to do."

Besser said health authorities also are concerned about indications that the flu had so far struck the young more heavily than older people, and that there still may be deaths from it.