Swine flu suspected in increase of school absences

By Michael E. Ruane and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009; 9:59 AM

Some secondary and elementary schools across the Washington region are seeing a gradual increase in absences that apparently are due to suspected cases of swine flu.

State and local officials say the trend is clear, if not dramatic. The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene says there have been flu outbreaks in 96 public schools, 59 of them in the Baltimore metropolitan area, since schools reopened in September.

Only seven public schools in Montgomery County and Prince George's County have reported outbreaks, said department spokesman David Paulson. He said experts theorize that there may be some immunity in those two counties stemming from the heavy flu outbreaks there last spring and summer.

In Howard County, there has been an increase in absenteeism, spokeswoman Patti Caplan said in an e-mail.

"We have very few 'confirmed' cases of H1N1 [swine flu] because most doctors are not testing for it anymore," she wrote. "We are providing daily reports to the Howard County Health Department on any school with 10 percent or greater absentee rate."

On Monday, "we had 8 schools with rates slightly over 10 percent and one at 23 percent," Caplan wrote. "Since September 9, twenty of our 70 schools have experienced absenteeism of 10 percent or more for at least one day. A couple of those are high schools and the absentee rate is mainly attributed to seniors out for college trips while 10th and 11th graders took the PSATs."

"Our experience is that a school will spike for one or two days and then go back down below 10 percent," she wrote. "It is scattered across the county and does not appear to be concentrated in any particular area or cluster of schools."

In Montgomery County, schools spokesman Dana Tofig said there has been a higher than normal rate of absences for this time of year. The spikes have been going on for the past few weeks, and each one typically lasts for two to three days.

Students with flu-like symptoms who turn up in school health rooms are generally isolated and sent home. Tofig said there is no geographic pattern and the absences are occurring in elementary, middle and high schools.

A D.C. schools spokeswoman said in an e-mail that no widespread flu absences have been reported.

In Virginia, Fairfax County public schools have seen a gradual rise in absences this month, from a systemwide average of 3.8 percent on Oct. 2 to 6.4 percent at the end of last week, officials said.

"There is an uptick," schools spokesman Paul Regnier said. "It's nothing outrageous, but it's definitely an uptick." He noted that officials can't be certain that the excess absences are caused by swine flu.

Prince William County schools reported on the system's web site Tuesday that "absences among students and staff are trending upward, particularly at the elementary school level."

"Some schools have shown student absences of 15 percent or above on a given day," the posting said. Throughout the county, student absences were averaging near 10 percent, compared with the usual 3 to 5 percent. Staff absences were about 3 percent on a given day, up from the usual rate of less than 1 percent.

An Arlington County schools spokeswoman said she had not heard of any sudden rise in absences.

In Manassas, schools spokeswoman Almeta Radford said the system was experiencing about a 15 percent absentee rate in elementary schools and a 10 percent rate in secondary schools. This week has seen the highest number of absentees, she said in an e-mail.

The district issued a phone alert Tuesday night asking parents to keep students with fevers at home, Radford said.

The Virginia Department of Health reported that its latest data, from earlier this month, reported an overall absence rate in Northern Virginia public schools of 3.5 percent.

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