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H1N1 fears hit area schools, sports teams

Perhaps even more contagious than the virus itself is the rapidly spreading hype over this season's H1N1 "swine flu" outbreak.

East Otter Tail hospitals, clinics, and even the "phone nurse" are being inundated with questions from concerned citizens, spouting off symptoms and clamoring for advice on how to keep themselves and their loved ones safe from the H1N1 novel influenza. Callers seeking to reach the phone nurse can expect wait times of nearly an hour, with the recent influx of H1N1 related concerns.

Locally, there have been several suspected cases of the new H1N1 flu virus, but so far this area has managed to avoid any full-blown outbreaks. If an outbreak does occur, it is likely to affect some of our communities' youngest citizens the hardest.

To address mounting concerns about H1N1, representatives from Perham Memorial Hospital and Home (PMHH) were present at the Perham Chamber Ambassadors' "Power Hour" meeting on October 13. They shared information about how H1N1 could affect the business world, also touching on its impact on the community in general.

"They're predicting, worst case scenario, that 40 percent of the workforce could be out," reported Mary Mayer, Director of Quality at PMHH. She asked those in attendance to think about how this type of widespread illness would affect their business, and encouraged everyone to develop a written plan detailing how they will deal with such a possibility.

"The first things that will close are daycares and schools," continued Mayer. In addition to temporary loss of manpower, she said businesses should look at how they will handle employees who may have young children they need to care for in the event that certain institutions are shut down.

H1N1 has already had an effect on Perham and New York Mills schools. Reportedly, three-quarters of the students in one kindergarten class were absent earlier in the week due to either illness or parental concerns about their children catching the H1N1 flu virus.

The impact has also been noticeable when it comes to area sports teams. On Saturday, Oct. 10, the New York Mills volleyball team canceled a trip to participate in the Litchfield Invitational due to a number of illnesses on the team.

"We didn't go to Litchfield last weekend so that the girls could rest over the weekend and hopefully get over the sickness," said Eagle head coach Amy Koskela. "We still practice as normal, but if girls aren't feeling well, we don't want them there to get others sick."

The New York Mills tennis team also had a match canceled due to illness last week. They were set to host St. John's Prep on Oct. 8, a make-up from an earlier weather postponement. The Eagles had two players out sick, but still had 10, just enough for a full varsity line-up. But their opponent, St. John's Prep, had six of their 12 varsity players out sick.

Illnesses have been affecting many of the area's sports teams, including Perham's number one ranked boys and girls cross country teams. The Lady Jackets have had a bug floating around the team for weeks.

To prepare for what looks to be an increasingly virulent flu season, Perham Memorial Hospital has started stockpiling supplies. They even developed a plan to create a temporary, secondary facility to treat more patients if necessary.

As of now, there is no vaccine available for the H1N1 flu virus, and a limited number of dosages of the seasonal flu vaccine. According to hospital officials, the H1N1 vaccine should be arriving in Perham within the next few weeks. Those who are considered to be highest at risk for H1N1 will be given the vaccine first. This initial group will include people such as pregnant women, health care workers, and caregivers who work with young children.

Those under the age of 50 will get the vaccine first, because they are more likely to be susceptible to the virus. When the H1N1 vaccine does arrive in Perham, it will be in the form of a nasal spray. According to Karen Meyer, Director of Emergency Preparedness at PMHH, the nasal flu mist will get into people's systems faster than a shot would.

Production of the nasal spray is also quicker, because many of the drug companies making the H1N1 vaccine in the shot form are also producing the seasonal flu vaccine. This year's demand for both vaccines has the companies so backed up that they cannot meet the current demand for either vaccine.

Meyer explained that unlike the typical seasonal flu shot that contains a non-active virus, the nasal spray contains an active virus-- in a weakened form. She said that people shouldn't worry about the vaccine's safety. However, she did caution that people who have a severe reaction to chicken eggs should not receive the vaccine.

The United States government will be paying for the H1N1 vaccine, but clinics administering the vaccine may charge a fee.