Anxiety Spreads With Diagnoses at N.Y. School

Governments around the world are launching medical and clean up operations to protect citizens against swine flu infections.
By Keith B. Richburg and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

NEW YORK, April 27 -- St. Francis Preparatory School was closed Monday, and its front doors locked, as cleaners inside worked to scour the building that has become the epicenter in the United States for the swine flu virus spreading across the globe.

"I'm in a zoo here," Brother Leonard Conway, principal of the Queens school, said before hanging up to attend to myriad health officials, parents and teachers, all wanting to urgently speak to him.

There was a growing sense of worry on the streets of the middle-class neighborhood surrounding the school as well, as the number of confirmed cases at St. Francis jumped to 28, with up to 100 possible once test results come back.

"I'm paranoid, I use hand sanitizer all the time, I pull away when people are talking to me," said Rosemarie Estevez, a receptionist in a nearby doctor's clinic. "I tell my son, 'Don't talk close to people, don't touch things, and don't share nothing.' "

"I stopped going to the grocery store across from the school," said Dee Rodriguez, 65, a nanny with her charge in a nearby playground.

With the school closed Monday and Tuesday, and possibly beyond, many of the affected students -- some still suffering symptoms of the flu -- were commiserating by cellphone and on new Facebook groups, where some questioned whether school authorities acted fast enough when it was clear students were getting sick.

Stephanie Maglaras first started feeling ill last Tuesday. She went home, and stayed there Wednesday, suffering from vomiting, diarrhea, body aches and coughing. She wanted to stay home Thursday, too. But Stephanie, a 14-year-old freshman at St. Francis Prep, was worried about missing too much time, with finals coming up.

When she returned Thursday, she was stunned to see how many of her schoolmates were out sick -- five or 10 from every class, maybe a few hundred of the 2,700 students at the school. Students were lined up outside the nurse's office, some so sick they were in wheelchairs. Their symptoms were similar -- coughing, aches, high fevers, diarrhea.

The rumors started swirling. Maybe it was food poisoning from the cafeteria. Or rat poison. Or something in the air from the construction tied to the school's 150th anniversary. No one then suspected it might be the group of about 10 seniors who had recently returned from a spring break trip to Cancun, Mexico, bypassing the school-sponsored senior trips to Hawaii and Italy.

Stephanie finally went to the hospital on Saturday afternoon. As soon as she said she was from St. Francis, "they took me, put a mask on me, and they put me in an isolation room." She stayed there for the next six hours, along with many of her classmates. "It was horrible," she said. "By the time I left, there was a good 15 kids."

Stephanie started the Facebook group "Prep Students Affected With Swine Flu" to find out how many of her schoolmates tested positive but were not yet counted in the official tally. She said within a day, 75 students had signed up.

And while no one has made the direct link -- and the strand here appears less virulent than the fatal version in Mexico -- there is widespread speculation that those seniors traveling on their final high school break may have brought the virus to New York.

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