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Flu-like symptoms hit county pupils early

Some Jackson County schools already have seen spikes in the number of students with flu symptoms well before the flu season typically makes its entrance.

Medford's Hoover Elementary School reported that 53 students were out sick Monday and at least 46 were out Tuesday.

"That's three to four times more than we would usually have this time of year," said Hoover Principal Phil Meager.

Central Point's Scenic Middle School has had about 40 to 50 students out sick each day, while Central Point Elementary School had about 20 absent with flu symptoms Wednesday, said Bob Bowers, Central Point schools human resources director.

It's unclear whether the sick kids have been infected by the new H1N1 flu strain, but the early appearance of cases indicates that's the likelihood.

"Because it's so early in the season, it's most likely the H1N1, but no one has been hospitalized. That's where they would actually do the tests to find out," Bowers said.

Flu season usually doesn't begin until late fall or early winter," said Tania Tong, Medford schools supervisor for student services.

Nationwide, visits to doctors for influenza-like symptoms are higher than expected for this time of year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first round of a vaccine for the virus is scheduled to be distributed later this month.

Meager on Monday sent letters to Hoover parents advising them that "a lot" of students were coming down with the flu and requesting them to take certain precautions.

"To keep the flu from spreading to more people, we ask you to keep sick children home," the letter said. "Any children who have flu-like symptoms in school will be sent home."

Tong said a handful of other schools in the Medford School District have elevated rates of flu for this time of year. Tong declined to release the names of the other schools until she has received a count of flu cases from respective schools. That count is due Thursday, she said.

"Certainly we have reports of students and staff with flu-like symptoms at a higher rate now than we did in the past.," Tong said. "The reason for that is the H1N1 virus never left the greater community because kids in day care and camps over the summer were getting it."

So far, the largest number of infections has occurred in people ages 5 to 24, making schools a major battleground in the offensive against the spread of the virus.

The Medford district plans to install 700 additional hand-sanitizing machines in schools by the end of September or early October, Tong said.

Medford teachers also have been asked to teach a flu curriculum provided by the Oregon Department of Education in the first two weeks of school. Classes began Sept. 8. Other Jackson County districts also are teaching the curriculum, including Central Point schools.

"The teachers are doing a lot to try to keep down the spread," Hoover parent Katie Tso said. "When I walked into my daughter's sixth-grade classroom, it actually smelled like a martini because they had been wiping down so many surfaces."

She said more precautions are needed, such as abandoning the practice of sharing materials such as crayons. Students in grades 1-3 customarily share supplies, she said.

"To me that's just an incubator for germs," she said. "Those are the classes heaviest hit."

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue. Symptoms can develop over the course of several hours, or overnight.

Parents are asked to teach their children to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the inside of their elbow and to avoid places where large numbers of people congregate, such as shopping malls and movie theaters.

For more information about the flu, see the Web sites at: www.cdc.gov/H1N1FLU/ and www.flu.oregon.gov/

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 776-4459 or e-mail pachen@mailtribune.com.