Another Kentucky school closed because of flu problems Tuesday, while the state's flu activity rating was raised from "sporadic" to "regional," the second-highest level of influenza activity.
Letcher County's Martha Jane Potter Elementary School closed Tuesday after 16 students were sent home with fevers and flu-like symptoms, the county school officials said. The school, which has bout 400 students, will remain closed through Wednesday, officials said. Samples from two students were forwarded to Frankfort for testing to determine the presence of H1N1 swine flu.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health said Tuesday afternoon that one child from the Junction City Elementary School in Boyle County now has been confirmed to have H1N1. The school is closed for the rest of this week because of flu-like symptoms among students and staff members.
Exact numbers of cases are unclear because doctors aren't testing all students with symptoms. However, they assume that most new cases are H1N1, since seasonal flu isn't circulating now.
The Fayette County Public Schools officials said Tuesday that while some of its students are home with flu-like symptoms, no serious problems have developed and attendance levels in its schools are running 92 percent or higher
Dr. Kraig Humbaugh, Kentucky's state epidemiologist, said the new developments are reason for concern, but not panic. He said that for now, Kentuckians should continue normal activities and practice good hygiene, pending the availability of a new H1N1 vaccine sometime in October.
Humbaugh stressed that neither children nor adults will be required to take the new vaccine, which now is undergoing trials to determine its effectiveness.
"As with any other vaccine, it will not be mandatory," he said. "We will recommend it for priority groups, but recommendation is different from mandate."
Schools closing in August because of influenza is unusual, Humbaugh said, since flu typically doesn't appear until cooler weather arrives. But, he said, health officials expected cases would surge once Kentucky schools opened, because the H1N1 virus already was circulating in the state.
Nevertheless, the new cases prompted Kentucky to tell the federal health authorities on Tuesday that flu activity in the state has increased to the "regional" level, one step below "widespread," the highest level. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks states' weekly activity reports as part of the national flu surveillance system.
Kentucky officials said students in affected schools have been reporting symptoms such as fevers of 100 degrees or more, sore throats, nausea and vomiting.
Those symptoms essentially are the same for seasonal flu. So far, H1N1 is no more sever than seasonal influenza, health officials say. But they worry that it could mutate into a more virulent form in the coming months.
School systems are taking precautions and monitoring the situation.
Letcher County Schools Superintendent Anna Craft said the system has elevated its emphasis on hand washing and hygiene; sanitized school buses, and sent additional custodial assistance into schools in hopes of slowing the spread of illness.
Rebecca Judy, a spokeswoman for the Boyle County Health Department, said problems began at the Junction City School when a staffer became sick last week. The illness quickly spread, a fact she said wasn't surprising given the close quarters in a school.
"When you put that many people in close contact, and they have high contact areas like desks, water fountains, books and pencils, it's going to spread more rapidly," Judy said.
School districts surrounding Boyle county reported no flu-related problems Tuesday. Officials at the Danville Independent Schools, also in Boyle County, said they'd seen no increased absenteeism among students or staff.
Educators generally hope that closing schools will provide time for sick students and staffers to recover, or become no longer contagious. But health authorities stressed that parents should keep their sick students at home, and away from day cares or malls where they could infect others.
Health authorities this fall will be offering two types of influenza vaccine: one for seasonal flu, and a second for H1N1. Each vaccine will be aimed at a separate priority group. But Humbaugh, the state epidemiologist, noted that officials will recommend that some individuals — such as health care workers and youngsters through age 18 — should take both.
Government officials say the H1N1 vaccine should be safe because it is being made in the same way that seasonal flu vaccine is manufactured. In most instances, seasonal flu vaccines are released to the public without trials.
"There's nothing that would make us think it (H1N1) would be any different one way or another," Humbaugh said.