Officials: Miss. poised to fight swine flu for now

JACKSON — Public and private health officials say Mississippi is in a position to handle the threat posed by the swine flu spreading across schools, colleges, daycare centers and workplaces.

But the state could find itself at a disadvantage in at least one area: school nurses. Mississippi’s student-to-nurse ratio is below national recommendations, and it remains to be seen how Gov. Haley Barbour’s latest budget cuts could affect funding for the nurses.

To date, the Department of Health has confirmed 622 cases and two deaths from the new H1N1 flu virus. Several hundred suspected cases have been identified on college and school campuses.

Barbour said he’s been in meetings with State Health Officer Dr. Ed Thompson, who oversees the Department of Health.

“They’re prepared. They were working on this before it happened,” Barbour said.

Barbour has cautioned that there’s the possibility the swine flu could mutate and become resistant to Tamiflu and Relenza, the drugs used to treat it.

“The fact is, thus far, the cases have been relatively mild,” Barbour said. “This strain may mutate and start being worse cases of people getting sicker and people dying, but that hasn’t been the case so far here. To say that we’re prepared, I’m not saying that things won’t get worse.”

The governor’s comments came before he announced $171.9 million in state budget cuts this week, citing declining revenue. The budget for K-12 public education was reduced by $114 million.

“As far as the nurses are concerned, no one will know the impact of the cuts at this moment,” said Department of Education spokesman Pete Smith.

The state has 457 school nurses, but not one in each of its 152 school districts. The ratio is 1 nurse to every 1,100 students, said Estelle Watts, the state school nurse consultant. She said the national recommendation is 1 nurse to every 750 students.

“We’re kind of behind the curve,” Watts said. “For the regular school year, I feel like we need more school nurses. With the H1N1 flu in there, obviously their workload is going to be increased.”

Watts said the nurses are trying to keep track of students with flulike symptoms. She called the nurses “the first line of surveillance” in trends on the campuses.

Districts are following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations to encourage frequent hand washing, sneezing into a sleeve or tissue and separating sick students from the general population.

The DeSoto County Public School District has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to parents’ delaying or declining to pick up sick students, said spokeswoman Katherine Nelson.

“We tell them we will call protective services if a child isn’t picked up. They’re here within five minutes because nobody wants to go through that,” Nelson said.

Several districts across the state are running high absentee rates.

At Clinton Public Schools, as many as 190 of its 6,589 student population were out this past week with flu symptoms, said spokesman James Mason. He’s concerned the absences could have an impact on the school funding since the average daily attendance is used to determine each district’s budget.

“If school absentee rates start doubling and tripling, this could be huge,” Mason said.

Smith said the Department of Education is tracking suspected swine flu cases at schools to determine average daily attendance, which in turn determines funding. He said the absentees will be compared to last year, but he didn’t know if the funding formula would be affected.

Reaching students will be a priority once the state receives its shipment of vaccine in October, said Liz Sharlot, spokeswoman for the Department of Health. She said health workers will go to the campuses to offer voluntary vaccinations.

Sharlot said the agency’s staff of 1,255 will be augmented with contract workers to help with vaccinations, which will be available at health clinics and doctor’s offices. When asked if budget cuts will impact the agency’s preparedness, Sharlot said “No. Absolutely not.”

Meantime, there doesn’t appear to be a shortage of Tamiflu or Relenza, officials say.

Dr. John Nelson, director of the emergency center at Forrest General Hospital, said he called a local pharmacy recently to check on the supply because one of his children was sick.

“There’s no shortage at this point,” Nelson said.

Nelson said visits from patients with flu symptoms have increased to about 20 or more cases a day.

He said the surge is expected because as students return to class and to the University of Southern Mississippi, they usually spread viruses that cause upper respiratory infections.

If the situation worsens, the hospital has a plan, he said.

“We have staff on call and we have plans for any kind of mass disaster,” Nelson said. “We’re not planning on that. I don’t want to alarm anybody.”

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press