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St. Mary's group hit by China swine-flu protocol

Three St. Mary's School students and a chaperone have been quarantined in Beijing until Chinese health officials can confirm they don't have swine flu, school officials reported.

The four travelers are part of a group of 65 students and seven chaperones from the Medford school who arrived in China this week for nearly three weeks of travel and language instruction.

They all reportedly felt fine, but apparently were caught up in the Chinese government's stringent efforts to prevent the spread of the 2009 H1N1 influenza that the World Health Organization last week reported has stricken nearly 95,000 people and caused 429 deaths.

The U.S. State Department has warned of travel problems caused by China's policies, including lengthy quarantines, quarantined children being separated from parents, and poor quarantine conditions, including lack of suitable drinking water and food, unsanitary conditions, limited telephone access and the absence of English-speaking doctors or interpreters.

"It was scary at first, but conditions have improved," said Sarah Naumes-Primerano, whose sister, Rebecca Naumes, is the chaperone.

Thursday afternoon, as Friday dawned in China, Naumes-Primerano said she had talked to her sister several times during the first two days of the quarantine and they hoped to get more news soon.

St. Mary's School Director of Admission and Marketing Michelle Tresemer wrote in an e-mail that the four travelers were placed initially under medical observation at Tian Tan Hospital in Beijing.

After spending their first night in China in the hospital, the four then were taken to a hotel, where they are awaiting test results that will determine when they can travel freely. At the hotel, they have access to their luggage, including games and snacks, Tresemer said.

"They are doing well and awaiting news," Naumes-Primerano said.

Results from nasal swabs to test for the presence of the H1N1 flu virus were expected today, Tresemer said.

Until the test result are released, the rest of the school group has suspended its travel and is waiting at Beijing Foreign Language School. Students have Internet access and food, and are playing soccer and participating in other activities, Tresemer said.

She said the group hopes that this will be a short delay and that all the travelers will be reunited quickly so they can continue their tour.

The students planned to spend several days sightseeing in Beijing, then a week and a half in the Henan province, the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu. There the students will study Chinese language and culture as well as receive kung fu instruction in the Pagoda Forest of the Shaolin Temple. Their itinerary also included a visit to the Longmen Grottoes, a World Heritage Site that dates back more than 1,000 years to a time when China was ruled by the Northern Wei and Tang Dynasties.

Their visit is part of educational program sponsored by Hanban Chinese Language Council International, a Chinese government sponsored initiative. The program included 1,500 English-speaking students this summer.

The St. Mary's group left Medford on Monday, driving to Portland, then flying to Beijing by way of Vancouver, B.C., said Naumes-Primerano.

News reports have described health officials wearing protective gear or scrubs scanning all incoming passengers with temperature sensors, and whisking away people with elevated readings.

The State Department noted that China implemented a policy in May that allows it to quarantine arriving passengers who exhibit fever or flu-like symptoms if they are arriving from a country which has cases of 2009-H1N1, including the U.S.

Although the overall percentage of Americans being quarantined remains low, the seemingly random nature of the selection process makes it almost impossible to predict when a traveler may be placed into quarantine, the State Department warning said. Travelers with even a slightly elevated body temperature risk being placed into hospital quarantine, while passengers sitting in close proximity to another traveler with fever or flu-like symptoms may be taken to a specially designated hotel for a quarantine of approximately seven days, even if they show no symptoms themselves, the warning said.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin was sequestered for five days in Shanghai last month after someone near him in economy class was suspected of having the virus, news reports said.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.