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Sick kids, mounting absences

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One of the shortest school weeks of the year in Minnesota started out with a jump in absences due to illness in the Wadena-Deer Creek school district.

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Nearly one-fifth of the WDC elementary school's student population missed school last Monday. Figures show that 96 elementary-aged children either stayed home or went home after seeing the school nurse. The Tuesday figure for illness-related absentees was 80 and Wednesday's number was 78. Elementary school nurse Teresa Manselle was among those absent Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Parents have been very good about calling us and telling us what the symptoms are," WDC elementary secretary Vicki Pearson said. Pearson also said that the normal absenteeism from school each day in 10-20 students. There were 502 students in grades K-6 enrolled at the WDC elementary in September when the school year began.

WDC elementary principal Louis Rutten saw one small silver lining in the timing of the illness onslaught.

"If this wave of flu is going on now this is fortunate to have it happen on these short weeks when we are not missing a ton of school," he said.

Tuesday's absence at the high school was not as serious, with 33 students absent due to illness.

"Our numbers aren't any higher now than in the spring when the flu went through on our end," WDC high school nurse Jill Boline said.

While some cases of H1N1 have been reported, there is a variety of reasons for absences at the high school.

"We've got strep throat, we've got pink eye, we've got Influenza A (seasonal flu) and then we do have a few cases of the H1N1," Boline said. "It's a wide variety."

Students who feel they are ill during the course of the school day at the high school report to Boline.

The ones I am seeing here are truly sick, running temps of over 100," Boline said. "I send them home if their fever is 100 or greater -- obviously if they are throwing up or have diarrhea. If they have a fever over 100 with a sore throat, cough, body aches, those would be your symptoms of influenza. We make parents aware of that."

Boline said the flu season is early this year but she is not surprised after battling both H1N1 and Influenza A in April and May of this year.

"We're very early for flu season this year, it's just peaked early," Boline said. "This is somewhat of the same strain that went through in the spring."

Wadena County Public Health Director Karen Nelson agrees that the flu season has arrived early. Flu symptoms might be deceptive now in adults.

"We tend to see with children that you can tell that it's influenza. Children have more fever, more body aches and more 'just wanting to lay down,'" Nelson said.

Adults are experiencing more coughs and sore throat, Nelson said.

"With the mild cases in adults they might think they have a sore throat, like strep throat and not influenza. A cold tends to be more head cold and blowing your nose and that kind of thing," Nelson said

Verndale superintendent Paul Brownlow is aware that two elementary classrooms have at least three students with flu-like symptoms, a condition which requires a school to report the situation to the state of Minnesota.

In addition to sending reminders out to all of his teachers, Brownlow said Verndale students have been asked to wash their hands before lunch and after recess. Parents with children who are ill are being asked to keep their children at home 24 hours after the flu has passed.

The county public health department has building use agreements and is set to administer the H1N1 vaccine to the general public, as well as students, at the Wadena-Deer Creek, Verndale, Sebeka and Menahga schools. St. Ann's Catholic School children are also covered.

Nelson is also working on building use agreements with the two technical colleges in the county -- M State Wadena and Staples.

Nelson said she expects H1N1 vaccines to arrive in Wadena County the final week of October or the first week of November. Vaccinations will be dispensed on a voluntary basis and will be given to high-risk groups first. In addition to receiving H1N1 vaccinations at schools, the public will be able to obtain a vaccination at a medical facility. The vaccine is expected to arrive in limited installments until Christmas. Nelson said there are approximately 13,500 people living in Wadena County but only half of that number are considered high risk so she expects no more than 7,500 vaccine doses.

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