By Keith B. Richburg and Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 28, 2009 8:46 PM
NEW YORK, April 28 -- The number of confirmed and suspected swine flu cases spread today beyond the Queens high school that has been its epicenter here, with new cases now suspected at a Queens public school for autistic children and a Catholic school in Manhattan, and additional scattered cases in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Moreover, Gov. David Paterson and state health officials said possible swine flu cases were being investigated in all regions of the state.
New York City remained the hardest hit, with now 45 confirmed cases and many more suspected. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said the numbers likely include "hundreds" of students, staff members and family members from St. Francis Preparatory school in Queens who have become ill. He said the city would be testing only severely ill people, because most of those hundreds of others can be assumed to be suffering from the virus and testing was not necessary. The school was closed Monday and Tuesday.
Students at St. Francis Prep, which has an enrollment of 2,700, told The Washington Post on Monday that hundreds of students had become ill and taken sick days last week. But only 45 students were tested specifically for swine flu and confirmed to be suffering from the virus.
Twelve teachers have come down with flulike symptoms, said Brother Leonard Conway, the principal, in a phone interview Tuesday. He said the school closure would be extended for the entire week. That measure would provide adequate time for any students who are ill to recover completely, in accordance with Health Department guidelines, he said.
He said the school was thoroughly cleaned over the weekend.
"Every single piece of furniture in this building, in every classroom, lab and office was washed down with a heavy-duty disinfectant," Conway said.
Students have complained that the school should have closed its doors earlier to halt the spread of the virus. Conway responded that he had not been aware of a problem until Thursday, when about 100 students were absent, and the school nurse's office had to get extra staff to take the temperatures of the dozens showing up sick.
Parents also have complained that the school did not reach out by phone or e-mail to update them about the situation. Conway said that the school's Web site showed alerts, and that his staff returned calls placed to his office.
The virus also appeared to spread to a nearby special education school for autistic children, P.S. 177, where a dozen children have become ill with fevers. That school is close to St. Francis Prep and was closed midday. Forty staff members and more than 80 students were absent Tuesday, said Ron Davis, a spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers. He said it was not clear whether they were sick or stayed home because they feared contracting an illness.
On Monday, there had been rumors of flulike illness at the school, but classes continued anyway. The principal of the school turned away a reporter who visited.
Bloomberg said one of the children at P.S. 177 had a sibling attending St. Francis Prep, which might account for the spread of the virus to the nearby school.
Also in Manhattan, authorities were investigating whether the flu has hit Ascension School, a Catholic school on the Upper West Side. There, six students have reported fevers and symptoms consistent with swine flu. But authorities were still determining whether to close the school.
Five other new cases in the city included a 2-year-old in the Bronx, who remained hospitalized, and a woman in Brooklyn who was hospitalized and discharged. The other cases are still being investigated, health officials said.
Bloomberg said all the cases in New York City so far could be traced to some connection with St. Francis Prep, or to someone who had been in contact with a recent traveler to Mexico. In the case of the Bronx child and the Brooklyn woman, Bloomberg said both had family members who had been to Mexico.
As for St. Francis Prep, he said the city was now seeing family members of students and school staff members falling ill from the virus.
"We don't know how widely swine flu will spread," Bloomberg said in a briefing to update reporters. "Only time will tell."
Thomas Frieden, the New York City health commissioner, said that the city has a million courses of Tamiflu pre-positioned but that for now officials are urging only health-care workers and caretakers for ill people to take it. He said the city was not suggesting people in contact with swine flu patients quarantine themselves.
"Yes, it is here, and it is spreading," Frieden said. "We do not know if it will continue to spread."
Bloomberg and other officials tried to project an air of calm, reminding New Yorkers that pneumonia and influenza typically kill about 2,000 people every year. This virus, officials said, so far appears to be of a milder strain than that which has killed more than 150 people in Mexico.
There have been no U.S. fatalities reported.
"Nothing about the progression of swine flu in our city has surprised us," Bloomberg said. He added that the city might be reported so many cases because it has one of the country's best systems for monitoring and tracking a new outbreak.