Anxiety Spreads With Diagnoses at N.Y. School

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.

"It's the best possible answer for how the swine flu got to us," said Jennifer Maurer, an 18-year-old senior who works for the school newspaper. She said she suffered some flu symptoms but was not positive for swine flu. Her best friend is still sick in bed, dehydrated and unable to speak on the phone.

Stephanie doesn't even know if she had direct contact with those possible carriers. "I honestly have no idea who went to Mexico," she said. "I wish I did. I would honestly flip out on them."

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said at a news conference Monday that "virtually all" of the affected students "seem to be getting over it in a day or so." Stephanie said she still feels sick, and her main problem is that she has been unable to find a pharmacy with a supply of Tamiflu, which was prescribed for her at the hospital.

Several public schools surround St. Francis -- the largest Catholic high school in the country -- and they remained open Monday, with class, recess and other activities proceeding as normal. But fears remained that the outbreak at St. Francis might spread.

"On Saturday I was at football practice and someone came up to me and said, like, 'You know what happened to Prep? Everyone's sick!' " said Sam Shocket, 16, a student at a nearby high school. "I was like, 'From what?' He was like, 'Swine!' I live right down the block. I was scared."

Taj Tariq, a 14-year-old ninth-grader at St. Francis, said he first began to feel sick with a sore throat Thursday after school. "I came home and lay on the couch, but didn't move," he said.

His mother, Rima Husain, called a relative, a doctor, who said to take Taj to the emergency room immediately. He was found to have swine flu and given Tamiflu.

"I started to get kind of scared," Taj said. "I knew people in Mexico died from this."

Since then, Taj has been quarantined in his room. When he ventures out to go to the bathroom, he wears one of the surgical masks his mother picked up at the hospital. Everybody else washes their hands every few hours, he said.

At Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where many of the students went for tests, a row of students from St. Francis waited outside the emergency room Monday, masks dangling around their necks.

A man ran inside with a toddler in his arms, the baby's curls damp with sweat. "What's wrong?" asked a hospital official.

"He has flu!" said the man.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company