2009-05-22 / Front Page

Two With 'Flu-Like' Symptoms at Scholars'

By Howard Schwach

On Wednesday, everything looked clean and green on the Rockaway peninsula in terms of the growing "Swine Flu" epidemic that is sweeping the city and the world.

An official of the Department of Education told us on Wednesday morning that there were no reported cases of the virus in Rockaway and that schools were all running a normal attendance pattern.

Emergency rooms at both of our local hospitals reported an uptick in residents coming to their emergency room with flu-like symptoms, but that nobody actually tested positive for the virus, which many still call "Swine Flu."

Things looked good.

That changed on Wednesday evening, when a teacher at the Scholars' Academy on Beach 103 Street reportedly went to her private doctor with "flu-like symptoms" and was diagnosed as having the virus.

On Thursday morning, a spokesperson for the Department of Health confirmed to The Wave that one child and one teacher at the school have "flu-like symptoms," but that the city agency was not going to test the swab samples sent to its lab by the private doctors because neither case is serious and because the two cases provide no "unusual cluster."

An anonymous call to The Wave early on Thursday morning, purporting to be the husband of another teacher at the school, said that the infected teacher, who he would only identify as a "math teacher whose first name is Kelly," was told by her private doctor at 8 p.m. on Wednesday night that she had the flu."

According to the source, the teacher notified the school's principal, Brian O'Connell, who then called the DOE with a request that the school be closed. He was reportedly turned down.

"The teachers are furious that the city won't take action to protect their health or the health of the students," the husband said, adding that he knew of a number of teachers who were taking the rest of the week off because they feared to go back to the school.

The Department of Education would not confirm or deny the story.

"The only agency that can confirm a positive diagnosis is the Department of Health," said Margie Feinberg, a long-time spokesperson for the DOE.

Feinberg said, however that the school remained open.

The school was reached for comment on Thursday morning, but Principal O'Connell did not return the call.

Sara Market, a spokesperson for the city's Department of Health, however, said that private doctors cannot confirm or deny a diagnosis of the H1N1 flu.

"A positive diagnosis has to be provided by our labs," she said, adding that "we are not testing every single case. We are testing only in severe cases or unusual clusters of cases,"

District 27 Superintendent Michelle Lloyd-Bay directed us to the Department of Health for comment.

On Wednesday morning, however, while dozens of schools in Brooklyn and Queens remained closed and absences rose throughout the city, schools in Rockaway were stable, a Department of Education spokesperson told The Wave.

"The attendance figures for schools in District 27 look good," Feinberg said. "Attendance for Tuesday [May 19] was at 86.3 percent, while last week [May 12} it was 88 percent. That is about average."

There is no doubt, however, that parents throughout the city are panicked about the possibility of the H1N1 flu, commonly and mistakenly called the Swine Flu, spreading to their children's school.

One daily newspaper headline on Wednesday blared, "Flu Panic Empties Schools And Fills ER's."

That is clearly not the case in Rockaway.

The Wave receives several calls daily inquiring about rumors that one particular Rockaway school or another would be closed because so many children reported symptoms of the current flu.

Both DOE and school officials say, however, that there has been no unusual incidence of illness at any Rockaway school over the past month.

Even official assurances, however, do not assuage the fear of some parents that their child will pick up the flu at school.

"We get kids from all over Queens here," said one parent whose child attends the Scholars' Academy, a magnet school for gifted students.

The parent, who asked not to be identified because she fears retaliation from school officials, said that she was told that a number of students at the school "have siblings at the infected schools and those siblings are sick with flu-like symptoms."

The parent wondered why the school is not closed and disinfected, but DOE officials say that the decision to close schools is made on a "case-by-case" basis that takes in many factors, including reported illnesses and a precipitous drop in attendance."

According to DOE statistics, the attendance at the school was at 88 percent on Wednesday. Thursday numbers were not available at press time.

And, while there has been a large uptick in the number of people going to the emergency room at our two local hospitals, there have been no confirmed reports of N1A1 flu victims on the peninsula.

"We have seen a significant increase in people coming to our ER with coughing and fever," said Liz Sulik, the Director of External Affairs for the Peninsula Hospital Center. "When patients with flu-like symptoms come to us, we see them, advise them and send them home, as per [New York City] Department of Health guidelines."

St. John's Episcopal Hospital in Far Rockaway has seen a similar increase in people coming to its ER.

"We have seen a definite increase in people who think they have the flu," said Dr. Eric Nazziola, the hospital's Director of Emergency Medicine. "We see from five to 10 patients a day who think they have it, but so far, we have had no confirmed cases."

Private doctors must also test for the H1N1 virus whenever a patient comes to their office with flu-like symptoms, officials say.

Experts say that the test provided by private doctors is only 70 percent accurate, and sample swabs must be sent to the health department's laboratory for confirmation.

The Health Department spokesperson said that swabs coming to its labs from private doctors may take several days to a week to test, if they are tested at all.

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