Flu Season: Flathead Schools See Slight Increase in Absences

By Beacon Staff

If you didn’t know any better, you might have thought the Mountain Mall in Whitefish was having an amazing sale last week. Though it may have looked like a dream sequence from pre-recession times, the makeshift sign reading “H1N1 Vaccine Clinic” at the mall’s entrance brought the realities of 2009 crashing back in.

The event was set up by the Flathead City-County Health Department on Oct. 20, in collaboration with North Valley Hospital and Mountain Mall. Over 800 vaccines were available and 667 vaccinations were given that day; the rest were administered the next day. The rush to get the vaccines – either the nasal spray or the injectable version – was the second of several planned events in the Flathead.

Officials at the county health department called their vaccination efforts successful and more vaccinations are planned for different age groups.

H1N1 flu fears have swept the nation and the state in recent months. Schools across Montana have seen increased absences and some, namely in Anaconda, had to shut down all together for a week earlier this month. So far, it seems that the Flathead schools have been more fortunate. According to officials in the valley’s school districts, the schools have largely avoided mass absences so far this year and are optimistic that they have procedures in place to help mitigate attendance issues.

While an increase in absences is usually expected this time of year due to seasonal flu or the general cold, school officials said their numbers have been a bit higher than usual, but nothing to panic about.

“Parents have been great about keeping kids home,” said Mike Nicosia, superintendent for School District 6 in Columbia Falls.

Nicosia reported attendance rates at about 90 percent, with 10 percent of the kids absent. He said there was a spike in absences a week ago, but it has settled down considerably.
School District 5 Superintendent Darlene Schottle said the Kalispell schools have tracked 1 to 2 percent of the their students out with flu-like symptoms. Otherwise, Schottle said the absentee rate has been up only slightly.

“I’m not seeing any alarming patterns,” Schottle said.

In Bigfork, School District 38 Business Manager Eda Taylor said they had a 15 percent absence rate last week, which was the highest percentage the district saw last year. Three weeks ago, the absence rate was 5 or 6 percent, Taylor said.

“At 15 percent, that’s a fair number of students by all means,” Taylor said. “We certainly have seen some increases.”

The line for H1N1 vaccines stretches out the front door and around the side of Mountain Mall in Whitefish.

But Taylor stressed that not all of the absences could be attributed to the flu and that it’s normal for sickness to start hitting the schools this time of year.

In School District 29, which accounts for Lakeside Elementary and Somers Middle schools, District Clerk Diane Fetterhoff said the absences are around 14 or 15 percent. Though more kids are starting to get sick, Fetterhoff echoed many of the school districts in saying that not all absences could be attributed to the flu.

Whitefish schools saw perhaps the highest absence rate, with officials from School District 44 reporting a 28 percent absentee rate at one point last week.

The national outlook has been grimmer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracked flu activity in 41 states last week. The CDC also said children ages 2 to 4 are more likely to require hospitalization or urgent medical care.

The virus seems to be attacking the young, with people under 24 years old accounting for more than 50 percent of flu hospitalizations.

In Whitefish, Tawnya Bingham brought her sons, ages 3 and 4, to the mall last week to get vaccinated even though they had never had flu shots before.

“This strain is scary,” Bingham said, adding that she wanted to keep her sons healthy especially when they are around a lot of other children.

Kristen Waggener brought her 17-year-old daughter, Ashlee, to get the nasal spray vaccination.

“I just want to keep her safe and protected,” Kristen Waggener said.

Ashlee, a junior at Glacier High School who was rushing off to soccer practice after getting the vaccine, said the process was really no big deal.

“It tickled,” she said.

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