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6: County copes with swine flu

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Less than one year ago, the phrase “swine flu” was used only in connection with a scare back in the ’70s, or not at all by those too young to remember it. But in April, the H1N1 strain of the contagious disease also known as swine flu landed front and center in the international media when the World Health Organization warned of a possible pandemic. In June the pandemic was officially declared. And though cases of the illness were slow to reach Vermont, the state Department of Health recommended precautionary measures to inhibit the spread of the contagious disease.

Vermont was one of the last states to see the H1N1 strain of the flu virus, but by June 12 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed 32 confirmed and probable cases in the state. Students at Shoreham Elementary School got an extra day of summer break when their last day of school was cancelled following a spate of flu-related absences.

And even though the summer months brought a slowing in the number of flu cases, alert levels were on high for the start of flu season come fall. By that time it was clear that most people with healthy immune systems were able to weather the sickness without severe complications. But State Epidemiologist Patsy Kelso noted that the disease disproportionately affected children and young adults, since it seems that many older people have already been exposed to similar flu strains. The CDC placed people up to the age of 24 in a priority category, strongly encouraging them to get the H1N1 vaccination. Local schools and Middlebury College geared up to prevent the spread of disease among their students, and state officials and healthcare providers prepared for a high demand for both the seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccines.

But when shipments of flu vaccine were delayed, schools had to reschedule their clinics and healthcare providers began taking down long waiting lists in October. The state’s first public clinic in Middlebury on Nov. 3 drew between 450 and 500 people vying for a supply of only 300 doses of vaccine. Meanwhile, the Vermont Department of Health classified swine flu as “widespread” in the state for the week ending on Oct. 17.

By early December, however, the flu outbreak had waned, and along with it much of the panic of previous months. The state still encouraged people in priority categories to get vaccinated, since there will likely be another wave.

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