Local officials are urging Hopkins County residents to take precautions against the spread of a swine flu virus that has killed more than 150 people in Mexico, even though no cases have reported in the area.
“We’re just asking people at this time to take all precautionary measures,” Hopkins County Judge Cletis Millsap said today. “If you’re sick with a cold, see a doctor. If you’re at home sick with a cold, don’t get out. Take all the precautions you can to have good health, like washing your hands, or coughing into a Kleenex or handkerchief.”
Linda Billings, who is in charge of infection control at Hopkins County Memorial Hospital, said to expect an increased number of people being tested for the virus, but only as a precaution.
“We’re just increasing our testing for anybody who is having symptoms,” Billings said this morning. “We’re not suspicious of anything in this area right now.”
The H1N1 swine flu virus is believed responsible for 152 deaths so far in Mexico — only 20 have been confirmed as swine flu, but the rest are suspected.
The Associated Press reported today there have been 51 cases in the United States, including six in Texas. The other states are New York, 28; California, 13; Kansas, 2; Indiana, 1; and Ohio, 1. There are also two probable cases in South Carolina.
The virus is apparently a new strain, meaning that flu shots received earlier this winter probably won’t offer much protection.
“This strain of swine flu (H1N1) is a novel virus, meaning the virus has not been reported previously,” according to a report on “East Texas Swine Flu Information” report sent from the Tyler office of the state health department Monday. “There is no evidence at this time that the current seasonal flu vaccine would provide any protection against this novel H1N1 strain.”
Billings said health care providers across Texas were issued a notice by the state health department to be especially vigilant with patients who have traveled to Mexico in the past seven days or who are exhibiting symptoms of the virus.
“Of course, prevention is the best thing,” she said. “If you feel sick, you need to stay away from others. Keep your hands clean, don’t share things, things like that.”
There’s also a fear factor — some people are simply scared of the possibility of an outbreak of a virus.
“We may see an increase in testing because of that reason,” Billings said. “Whereas before they may have hunkered down until they’d gotten over it, because of all of this, they’ll come in and say they do want to be tested. Just because we’re seeing an increase in testing doesn’t necessarily mean we’re having an increase in flu.”
Three cases of the disease have been reported in Guadalupe County, where schools in the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City Independent School District were closed Monday after several flu-like illnesses were discovered. A school in Richardson was also closed after a first-grader was confirmed to have contracted the virus.
Teachers and administrators in Sulphur Springs are also keeping close watch on students for any signs of the flu.
“We are being extremely cautious,” said Sulphur Springs ISD Superintendent Patsy Bolton. “We are watching this closely. We are going into the same mode that we would if we had an influenza A outbreak. We are encouraging students and staff to wash their hands repeatedly, we disinfect on the campuses, and if anyone is sent home with flu-like symptoms, we’re going to take notice of that.”
Fever is the first major indicator of the virus, but normal flu symptoms such as coughing, aching joints, diarrhea and others also accompany the onset of swine flu.
“We would never ignore that, but since this is a much more serious strain, we would take precautions if those students are sent home,” Bolton said. “We want to be more pro-active.”
Judge Millsap also said he would take measures to fight a possible outbreak downtown.
“At the courthouse, I’m planning on washing down the sidewalks and cleaning off the porches and disinfecting around the courthouse, just in case,” he said. “I would say everyone should possibly do that. People will come outside and they may spit or they may cough or sneeze, and if this germ gets in the air, it’s contagious — very contagious.”
Millsap also said he spoke with Dr. I.L. Balkcom IV, a Sulphur Springs physician who serves as the health officer for Hopkins County, about the latest developments.
“He will act on our behalf, notifying us of any precautionary measures we need to take, or if we need to take any measures for any type of inoculation that needs to be done on a mass scale,” the judge said.
In Tyler, Paul McGaha, the director of the regional office of the Texas Department of State Health Services, is putting together a plan of action for the counties in East Texas and setting up a conference call with physicians in the region.
“If it gets worse, we’ll implement an emergency plan to take whatever measures the state wants us to do,” Millsap said.
Even with no confirmed cases of the influenza in Northeast Texas, Millsap warned that the mobility of people — and the proximity to Interstate 30 — means there’s always a chance the virus could turn up in Hopkins County at any time.
“We have a lot of people that come out of South Texas and Mexico that are migrant workers in this area, and they could easily bring that virus up from Mexico,” the judge said. “We’ve just got to be real careful.”
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