Aspen, Pitkin County gets jump on flu | AspenTimes.com

Aspen, Pitkin County gets jump on flu

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Health officials in Aspen and Pitkin County plan to get ahead of what is expected to be a busy flu season by offering vaccinations for the seasonal flu early, so they’re ready to administer a new swine flu vaccine when it becomes available.

Dates to get flu shots for the seasonal, or “regular”, flu will be moved up to September with the expectation that a new H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine will be made available in October, according to Liz Stark, public health director for Pitkin County.

Dates for the September flu shot clinics have not yet been finalized, Stark said, advising residents to watch for upcoming announcements.

Health officials will be working closely with the Aspen School District to keep an eye out for sick youngsters, as the closed-in environment of a school is a likely place for the spread of both seasonal and swine flu, according to Stark.

On Friday, the University of Colorado in Boulder was reporting the number of possible swine flu cases on campus had already increased from just a handful to as many as 50. Forty to 50 students were tested for influenza A, of which swine flu is a strain, but they hadn’t been tested for swine flu and, therefore, are not confirmed cases of swine flu. CU was not canceling classes, but asked students who are sick to stay home and not attend class.

In a mailing sent to parents, the Aspen schools urged parents to keep kids at home if they are sick and informed them that any child who is sick at school will be sent home. The mailer also urged parents to consider getting both the seasonal and H1N1 vaccines when they become available.

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The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is also urging businesses to prepare for the impact that H1N1 and seasonal influenza could have on employees and operations this fall and winter season.

Individuals should get vaccines for both the seasonal and H1N1 flu, advised Dr. Morris Cohen, health officer for Aspen and Pitkin County.

“There is no cross protection,” he said.

The H1N1 vaccine is still in clinical trials. When it becomes available, priority recipients will be pregnant women; parents and caregivers of children who are younger than 6 months in age, as infants that young cannot receive the vaccine; medical personnel; and children age 6 months to 4 years of age, he said.

Last spring’s outbreak of N1N1 in North American was not severe. Few cases were reported in the Roaring Fork Valley and all of them were mild.

The nation, and the world, may not be as luck this season. The flu virus that caused the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic gained deadly strength in its second season, according to David Ressler, Aspen Valley Hospital administrator.

Estimates put the global mortality from that pandemic at anywhere between 30 and 50 million; an estimated 675,000 Americans were among the dead, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

It would be a mistake, said Cohen, to approach the coming flu season with complacency because the swine flu did not produce the feared mortality rates last spring.

“They’re usually pretty mild the first year they arrive, then a year or two later, it’s very serious,” he said. “We should not take this lightly.”

The good news, Cohen said, is swine flu cases in the southern hemisphere, where winter is now ending, were apparently caused by the same strain that appeared in the northern hemisphere last spring. That means the vaccine now being developed should be effective; if the virus mutates into a different strain, that might not be the case, he said.

On a local and national level, the strategy is to hope for the best and plan for the worst, Cohen said.

“That’s what we should all be doing.”

Fever and cough are the most obvious systems of the flu, be it the seasonal or H1N1, according to Stark.

Any child displaying these symptoms should be kept home from school and not return until they are fever-free for 24 hours without the assistance of drugs, she said.

To help prevent the spread of the flu, parents are encouraged to teach their children to wash their hands and not share personal items.

The Centers for Disease Control is recommending employers brace for a flu outbreak. The CDC recommendations to employers include:

• Encourage workers who have symptoms of flu or flu-like illness to stay home and not come to work until at least 24 hours after their fever has abated.

• Encourage frequent hand-washing and routine cleaning of commonly touched surfaces at work.

• Plan how to operate if there is a high level of absenteeism. Identify essential business functions, essential jobs or roles, and critical elements within the operation.

• Be prepared if schools or child-care programs close, requiring employees to stay home with their children. Employers should try to make sick-leave policies flexible to allow for such closures and for the need for parents to stay home with their sick children.

• Consider lifting any policy that requires employees to obtain a note from their doctor regarding their illness. These types of policies can needlessly tie up already over-burdened physicians’ offices.

• If the flu season begins to impact operations, consider canceling nonessential, face-to-face meetings and travel and spacing employees’ work stations farther apart.

To the degree Aspen doesn’t experience the crowding of a big city, the community is fortunate, according to Cohen.

“We’re kind of lucky, I think. We’re not crowded and we have some degree of social distancing, even though we have tourists,” he said. “No. 1 is vaccination. If we can prevent people from getting it, we’re ahead of the game.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

janet@aspentimes.com