A flu outbreak has closed three Queens schools and an assistant principal diagnosed with swine flu is fighting for his life today -- but many concerned parents are questioning whether city officials acted swiftly enough.
"We are seeing continued cases throughout New York City that are likely to be from H1N1 virus," Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Frieden said at a press conference in Elmhurst today.
Concerns over the new, H1N1 swine flu virus prompted the city to shutter Susan B. Anthony middle school in Hollis, PS 16 elementary school in Corona and Walter Crowley middle school in Elmhurst for five days each after students began complaining of flu-like illnesses. Crews are scouring the schools with disinfectant.
But earlier this month, Susan B. Anthony sent out a letter to parents denying any swine flu connections at the school. The letter references a rumor that a parent of a student came into contact with swine flu, but says a doctor confirmed the parent did not have swine flu.
“On Monday, I found a notice in the library that said, ‘If you are sick, you should stay home,’” eighth-grader Kvon Williams-Sparks told The New York Times. “But nobody has otherwise talked to us.”
Arrie Bines, the mother of a 6th-grade student who came down with a fever, said her son asked teachers earlier in the week about swine flu and was told there was no threat. Bines said she was at the school yesterday and was told the same thing.
"If I had known there was swine flu at the school I would have kept him home," said an angry Bines.
Meanwhile, Mitch Weiner, the Susan B. Anthony's assistant principal, is on a breathing tube and barely able to talk to his family, according to his sons. Health officials have confirmed he has the swine-flu virus.
His wife, Bonnie Wiener, said her husband would not be critically ill if the Health Department and Department of Education officials closed the Hollis school sooner, the New York Post reported.
"He's in critical, critical condition," Bonnie Wiener told the paper. "It's a nightmare I can't wake up from."
More than 50 students at Susan B. Anthony have gone home sick with flu-like symptoms, Mayor Bloomberg said at a briefing last night. At the Elmhurst middle school, 241 students were absent Thursday. Dozens more were sick at the Corona elementary school
Mayor Bloomberg said that as of Friday afternoon there are no plans to close additional schools but officials will monitor the situation.
The “large clusters” in the schools is “a little surprising,” Frieden said. The virus isn't more virulent than seasonal flu but appears to be spreading more rapidly than other flu strains.
"We don't know how far it will spread, how wide it will spread, or how long it will spread," Frieden added . "We will continue to monitor very intensively where it will spread."
All three schools are special education schools with more than 4,000 students combined.
New York City's first known cases of swine flu appeared in late April, when hundreds of teenagers at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens began falling ill following the return of several students from vacations in Mexico, where the outbreak began.
At first, the virus appeared to be moving at breakneck speed. An estimated 1,000 students, their relatives and staff at the St. Francis Prep fell ill in a matter of days. A limited number of kids had confirmed cases of swine flu because the Health Department tested only a small amount of students.
City health officials became aware of the outbreak on April 24. The school closed and health officials began bracing for more illnesses throughout the city.
But the outbreak then seemed to subside. Additional sporadic cases continued to be diagnosed, but the symptoms were nearly all mild. The sick children recovered in short order. St. Francis reopened after being closed for a week.
At the start of the flu outbreak in the United States, government health officials recommended that schools shut down for two weeks if there were students with swine flu. But when the virus turned out to be milder than initially feared, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dropped that advice but urged parents to keep children with flu symptoms home for a week.