The correct answer is, yes: the H1N1 swine flu pandemic is here in Texas and even Blanco County.
It just doesn’t look like what most people expected.
In the movies, people drop like flies when an epidemic hits, all at the same time, as the disease spreads as fast as special effects allow.
In real life, though, it works differently. Flu creeps into the community...a few cases at a time...and that low level can last for weeks. (That’s what’s happening here.) Then the case count shoots up, doubling or quadrupling from week to week, then leveling off five or six weeks later as the count begins falling. (That’s NOT happening here.)
The Texas case count fell last week — by more than half — after a sharp spike the week before. The Department of State Health Services says there are pockets of flu, and communities where it hasn’t hit yet, plus lots of places where it’s up and down.
That’s Blanco County. There’s no count of cases for the county, but school attendance is a good measure, and that yardstick tells us the virus definitely is here. There’s a bit more in the south end of the county than in the north, but not bad.
“Our absentee rate for the week ending September 25th was unusually high,” said Dr Buck Ford, Superintendent of Blanco ISD. Even so, he pointed out the numbers for each school were in the dozens, not the hundreds, and the count for last week was lower in each school, though still above average.
At LBJ Elementary School in Johnson City, Principal Shannon Helmke said absences there have been about normal for this time of year.
“Our absences have been for a lot of different illnesses,” she explained, “and there hasn’t been a spike in the numbers.”
Both districts are tracking absentee rates closely.
“We’re in a position of watchful waiting,” Ford said, monitoring for first signs of a sudden burst of flu cases.
If that happens, both districts are ready to make closing decisions, but will resist shutting schools as long as they can still teach students effectively. The Texas Education Agency guideline says that break may come about the 15% absentee point. The exact trigger point is up to the local school districts and both Blanco County districts say they’re not setting a specific number.
“If absences rise, we’ll look at whether we can still teach effectively, and if the answer is no, we’ll consider closing for a few days,” said Helmke.
Most school closings around the state have been for just a few days, until a spike in cases passes and attendance rises again.
Both districts have talked with the DSHS about hosting flu shot clinics in the schools, to make it easy for students to get their vaccinations. While there’s no such clinic scheduled yet — and won’t be until the state’s vaccine actually arrives — both districts consider the shot clinics a good idea.
Meanwhile, both are doing what they can to keep educating students.
“We provide at-home classwork for many of our ill students,” Ford said, “so they don’t completely miss out on the days they’re gone. Exactly what’s available depends on the class and the teacher, but we want to cut down as much as we can on make-up work when they get back.”
Both district also are making strong efforts to get students and their parents behind the anti-flu push, with letters and information for parents and flu hygiene education for the kids.
“We have hand-washing posters in all the bathrooms and we definitely teach the youngsters good hand-washing technique, and have them do it often,” said Helmke.
Still, the flu manages to touch Blanco County, even beyond the actual patients.
Blanco Middle School’s 7th and 8th grade football games against Comfort had to be canceled last week.
“We just had too many boys out sick,” explained Comfort Athletic Director Chip Mayfield. “We’ve been hit hard by the flu.”