Friday, July 31–Health Dept., School Officials Attend H1N1 Summit

BERLIN- With the calendar getting ready to flip over to August tomorrow, it won’t be long until area schools re-open, and to that end, local health department and public schools officials this week traveled to Annapolis for a summit and update on the still dangerous H1N1, or swine, flu, outbreak.

After reaching a crescendo in early spring, the hype about H1N1 has simmered considerably, but the virus continues to take its toll in every state in the country including Maryland, where the number of confirmed cases has swelled to 766 in the latest numbers released this week. In Worcester County, there have been 26 confirmed cases reported as of this week.

Four deaths have been associated with the virus in Maryland, the latest reported just last week on the Eastern Shore when an unidentified adult with no immediately apparent underlying medical condition of risk factors succumbed to the illness, according to state health officials.

“We’re saddened to report yet another death that has been associated with the novel H1N1 influenza,” said Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) Secretary John Colmers this week. “The H1N1 flu death of someone without apparent underlying medical conditions reminds us of just how serious influenza can be, even in otherwise healthy unvaccinated individuals.  More H1N1 flu-related deaths are expected, as we would normally see with seasonal flu.  We continue to urge all Maryland families to take this H1N1 flu seriously. While we wait for the development and delivery of a vaccine, everyone should remain vigilant and take precautions to protect themselves and their loved ones.” 

With the start of the school year less than a month away, DHMH officials this week hosted a summit in Annapolis with state health department officials and local school officials to share information and discuss plans to address the challenges and uncertainty surrounding the spread of the influenza virus.

“Our charge from Governor O’Malley is to be prepared for the worst, especially since young people, young adults and many parents appear to have little or no natural resistance to the H1N1 flu,” said Colmers. “Students and pre-school children will likely be a priority when an H1N1 flu vaccine becomes available. Our health and education leaders need to be prepared and ready to act should this flue continue to spread and pose a more serious health risk this fall.”

Worcester County Health Officer Debbie Goeller attended both sessions of the summit including a morning one with school officials and an afternoon one with emergency services providers. Worcester County Public Schools also sent a contingent to Annapolis, and although he was not able to attend in person, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes said this week he was briefed on the meeting.

“We’re obviously taking this very seriously,” he said. “We realize this is something we will likely be dealing with this fall and we’re taking all of the precautions necessary to prevent the spread of this virus in our facilities and that means making sure we have soap and soap dispensers in our schools, plenty of paper towels and tissues and everything else we need to do that.”

Andes said the slow, but steady spread of the virus makes it imperative the school system is prepared when students return in a few weeks.

“Obviously, we do a lot of these things already, but will be doing more of that this fall,” he said. “We’re going to educate the students even more about the importance of proper hygiene with a greater emphasis and awareness about things like washing your hands frequently, using tissues and discarding them properly. We’re following the advice handed down to us from the state and local health departments.”