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F-M area steps up efforts to fight flu

Public Health School Nurse Jane Prather tells a student Monday that his temperature is high enough that he can leave Fargo's Discovery Middle School to go home. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

A rising number of flu cases has forced local hospitals, schools and day cares into a battle against the virus.

Last week, health officials said that most of the flu cases in Fargo-Moorhead have likely been of the H1N1 strain, also known as swine flu, versus the seasonal flu.

To prevent further exposure of patients to the virus, MeritCare Health System implemented visitor restrictions this week at its two Fargo hospital locations.

It's not the first time MeritCare has limited visitors' access during a flu season, said Joan Cook, the health system's infection control manager.

"When we know we're starting to reach a certain threshold, then that usually is a trigger, where we take a more pre-emptive, a more precautionary step to protect our patients," Cook said.

Administrators gauge that threshold by looking at how common a disease is in the community and how many people come to walk-in clinics, among other factors, Cook said.

Innovis Health has not adopted a restricted visitor policy yet, but officials are asking visitors with flu-like symptoms to stay away.

Administrators plan to review this week whether restrictions should be implemented, Innovis spokesman Randy Glandt said Monday.

Elsewhere in the community, other health care providers and local schools are taking more preventive measures.

The 7-Day Clinic has seen hundreds of people a day recently among its three Fargo-Moorhead locations, with most patients having flu-like symptoms, said operations director Bill Williams.

Patients who come to the clinic with a cough are asked to wear surgical masks to prevent spreading any illness, he said.

Students with flu symptoms also have swamped Discovery Middle School's nurse's office.

"All of our nurse's offices are standing room only at times," said Jane Prather, the Fargo school's nurse. "It's been very, very busy."

Last week, 10 percent of the students at Discovery were sick at home. That increased Monday to 12 percent, or 113 of 943 students.

Many of the kids Prather saw Monday had low-grade fevers or stomachaches - not necessarily strong signs of the flu, she said, but she isn't taking any chances.

"Even with low-grade fevers, we want them to go home," she said.

Oak Grove Lutheran School in Fargo and other local schools are deploying ample supplies of hand sanitizer to students and staff to help prevent the spreading of the flu.

Last week, about 10 percent of Oak Grove's 263 middle schoolers and high schoolers were absent. By Monday, absences were cut in half.

"Last week, we were kind of hit hard," said Oak Grove spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell, adding the school is following Fargo Public Schools' flu policies and, "We're not looking to close at any specific time. Hopefully it will just be a mild season."

Other area schools reported seeing a peak in flu cases last week and a retreat to near normal numbers Monday.

Fargo Public Schools spokesman Lowell Wolff reported the district had about 300 flu cases last week, affecting 3 percent of the district's students.

"By and large, the district has not been that severe," Wolff said, adding that during the height of flu season each year, the district typically sees 7 to 8 percent of its students absent.

Small Wonders Preschool & Child Care Center in Fargo has developed a cleaning program that borders on "extremely excessive" in order to protect the 600 or so children it serves, director Lynette Lein said.

"It's a constant wiping of tables and chairs, constant washing the toys and washing doorknobs," she said, adding that they've also implemented a hand-washing regimen when children and parents come to the center.

MeritCare visitor restrictions*

* Only immediate family members who do not have flu-like symptoms may visit hospitalized patients. Immediate family members include parents, spouses or significant others,

in-laws, grandparents and children older than 18.

* Children younger than 18 are not allowed to visit.

* Patients at MeritCare's emergency center in downtown Fargo can only bring one person with them.

*Effective Oct. 19