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H1N1 flu virus: Flu-like illnesses causing concern

The H1N1 flu virus has school, county and medical officials in the Bemidji Area working to keep up "business as usual" in spite of student and staff shortages.

Despite higher numbers of flu-like illnesses being reported in the area, the protocol remains the same: if you're sick, stay home and avoid contact with other people.

Bemidji State University's Center for Health and Counseling nurse practitioner Jan Maas said the flu season arrived early and is now in full swing.

"Usually, we can hold off until January and February, but we're seeing so many more students now," Maas said.

According to Rose Jones, BSU director of communication and marketing, no classes have been cancelled at BSU.

"We are asking both students and instructors to be flexible and responding to those who stay home sick," said Jones.

Teachers in the Bemidji School District are also being asked by the district to not give points to students for perfect attendance.

"We shouldn't penalize students for not coming to school if its illness related," said Bemidji High School Principal Brian Stefanich.

Crookston Public School officials canceled a day of classes after a recent surge in students with flu-like illnesses this week. About 15 percent of the district's 1,270 students had the flu Monday, Oct. 20. The superintendent decided to cancel classes after talking with Polk County Public Health, which had reported a high number of influenza cases in the clinics and hospitals.

Sue Nokleby, Bemidji School District nurse, said although Bemidji schools are seeing the highest number of flu-related absences, the state health department and the Centers for Disease Control do not recommend closing schools.

"Closing a school means a day off for kids, many of whom spend it with each other. It just further spreads the virus into the community," said Nokleby.

"If the absences are in such numbers that classes cannot be taught, the decision is ultimately up to the superintendent," she said.

Nokleby reported a significant increase in the number of student absences related to flu-like illnesses from the Bemidji School District.

"We're seeing between 10-15 percent of students absent from school due to flu-like illnesses," she said.

The district continues to take direction from state and county health departments.

"I have had staff gone for four or five days," said Stefanich. "But the flu has been so well covered in the media that we're all aware of it, and we're dealing with it."

"Most parents have been cooperative in keeping their children home if they are sick," said Nokleby. "The important thing is not to panic, stay home if you are sick, wash your hands, and think about getting vaccinated."

Nokleby said all schools will be notified when the H1N1 vaccination arrives. Students are among those of highest priority for receiving the vaccination.

North Country Regional Hospital in Bemidji reported a 35 percent increase in the number of influenza-like illnesses in the last week, said William Shuler, emergency department medical director.

"We've seen a record number of visits to the emergency department over the last five days," said Shuler. "We've never seen so many people coming through."

Shuler said the emergency department has been seeing a mixture of Influenza A, B, and H1N1. He reported most influenza-like illnesses lasting between five to seven days.

In general, the hospital is not treating the flu with specific medication unless the patient has specific conditions, said Shuler.

The CDC recommends anti-viral medical treatment for those younger than 2 years old, asthmatics, pregnant women and adults with significant cardiac problems or emphysema.

According to Shuler, these sub-group patients will start on anti-viral medication, which typically only slows the course of the virus.

NCRH has increased staffing and has started a fast-track clinic, which is a small urgent care unit.

"We are asking community to understand flu medications are to be used for sub-group patients and the severely ill," said Shuler.

The H1N1 flu virus has been causing illness in people since it was first detected in the United States in April.

The Minnesota Department of Health has set up a Minnesota FluLine, which has received more than 2,100 calls so far.

Individuals with flu-like symptoms can ask questions by calling the Minnesota FluLine at 1-866-259-4655.