Monday, September 7, 2009

Ready, Set, Swine Flu!

Tomorrow is the first day of school in the great state of Michigan and in many other places. In honor of this, the New York Times is running an article in its "Well" section tomorrow about what parents need to know about H1N1. It's a pretty good article and is full of practical information (e.g. when to call the doctor) placed in reasonable context.

I actually laughed out loud, however, when I read the first few sentences:
A few weekends ago, a mother I know called to ask about swine flu after her daughter complained of breathing trouble and other worrisome symptoms. Fortunately, my friend quickly reached her pediatrician, who reassured her about the child’s condition. But the conversation made me realize just how stressful this flu season is going to be for parents.

My first reaction to this was, "Gee, ya think?!? What was your first clue?" How soon we forget the mass hysteria of just 4 months ago, when schools were closing at the first sniffle and emergency rooms were flooded by the not-that-sick and the worried well.

As I've discussed in this space, the quality of information coming from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and local health departments has greatly improved since April. The dire warnings are still there, but they are placed in the context of both statistics from seasonal flu and the relative likelihood of the various scenarios. The media, on the other hand, seems, for the most part, not to have gotten the message, and is reporting outbreaks of H1N1 as though they are outbreaks of bubonic plague.

In the midst of all this, we educators are preparing for school and for H1N1. By far the biggest thing we are preparing for, at least in my district, is not death and destruction, it's absenteeism and parental over- and under-reaction. We are quickly getting up to speed on how to post educational activities on the web in ways that parents can access them, making sure that substitute plans are in place, and contemplating what will happen if enough staff are affected that we don't have enough subs to cover them all. We are learning the new mantra -- stay home if you've had a fever of 100 degrees or more in the past 24 hours -- and strategizing what to do about parents who send their children to school anyway. We are making sure all of our staff have the same information so that if an outbreak does occur we can give parents consistent, calm messages.

As laid back as this may all sound, I do have something to admit. When I pause to think about my own friends and family, I am a little stressed. I listen to the cough my son, who has mild asthma, has had for a few weeks and I worry that we missed something, even though I know we didn't. A friend who is undergoing cancer treatment has a suspected case of H1N1, and I not only worry about him but feel personally responsible for nagging him to get to the doctor (I'm sure he appreciates that). Which just goes to show you that preventing panic in others does not prevent stress in oneself. It's going to be an interesting flu season.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Naomi, for your coverage and analysis of H1N1. I am a teacher getting ready to head overseas to teach and have been reading a lot of press on H1N1 lately. Usually I'm pretty media saavy, but when it hits this close to home (i.e. personal risk), all those numbers and figures start to make one pretty shell shocked. You provided the bit of perspective I needed. Cheers!

Jon said...

Watching for fever is good, but please keep in mind that there have been a number of presentations without fever as well and perhaps relying on a number of signs and your understanding of how rampant the H1N1 virus has become with other school openings in other areas of the states will give you clues regarding the spread of the virus in your school system. (See

Naomi Zikmund-Fisher said...

Jon, that may well be true (and thanks for the link). However, my point still stands -- for the most part we are looking at a flu. A flu that will infect more people and perhaps that is unusually contagious. A flu that children do not have immunity to. But still, a flu. My goal is not so much to know of every single case -- I think that's unrealistic. It's to keep the situation in some measure of perspective and be prepared for the inconvenience that is likely to arise. Inconvenience remains the single most likely effect of this flu.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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