Flu hitting Big Island schools; vaccination program starts next month

  • Tandy Newsome, director of quality management at Hilo Medical Center, demonstrates how she would give a flu shot at the Hawaii Island Family Health Center in Hilo Medical Center. (Hawaii Tribune-Herald/file)

KAILUA-KONA — Big Island schools have been back in session for a month, and already cases of influenza are being reported among the student population and staff members.

An email circulated among Konawaena High School faculty and staff last week alerted the school of students being sent home because of the flu.

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“Starting last week, there have been more and more of our student’s sick with the flu. According to the doctor I spoke with, they are highly contagious for 5 days. Doctors are recommending that students stay home for 5-7 days and prescribing Tamiflu,” the email said.

Symptoms of the flu include fever, cough, sore throat, muscle or body aches, headaches and fatigue. A person infected with the virus can be contagious before they exhibit these symptoms.

The virus spreads through the transfer of fluids when a person coughs, sneezes or talks, or from a person touching a surface that has the virus on it, and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes.

A West Hawaii Today story published last Friday said the Kealakehe football team went without practice for a few days because an estimated 30 players were affected by the flu.

Laura Lott, director of communications and public relations at Kaiser Permanente, a health care insurance provider, said the best way to prevent the flu from spreading among schools is to make sure students are washing their hands.

“Good hand hygiene is the best thing you can do,” Lott said. “It’s hard to get kids to wash their hands during the day at school, but as soon as they come home from school, parents, the first thing they should do when they walk in the door is wash their hands. Because that takes all the germs they’ve been exposed to all day, it doesn’t expose the house to it and the other people in the house.”

Lott emphasized the importance of getting a flu shot.

“The vaccine is safe and effective. You can’t get the flu from the vaccine. It does take a couple weeks to be protected, so the sooner you get it, the sooner you’ll be protected,” Lott said. “Every year it’s a new vaccine because the virus changes, but even if it’s not a perfect match it does provide a large level of protection. So even if you get the flu, it will be a lot less life threatening, and a lot less inconvenient, if you have already been vaccinated.”

According to the Hawaii State Department of Health, Disease Outbreak Control Division’s website, it takes at least two weeks after vaccination to confer immunity against influenza virus infection.

In an effort to prevent the spread of influenza through vaccination, the DOH has created the Stop Flu at School program.

For the 2019-20 flu season, Stop Flu at School influenza vaccination clinics will be offered to all elementary and intermediate public schools in Kauai, Maui, and Hawaii counties from October through November. A list of the schools participating and the date of their clinics can be found at health.hawaii.gov/docd/about-us/programs/stop-flu-at-school.

Parents or guardians must fill out a consent form for their child to receive the vaccination. The form can also be found on the program’s website.

Lott said flu shots will be available to Kaiser members on the Big Island starting Tuesday, Sept. 10, with the group’s walk-in flu shot clinics.

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“We have the vaccine on the island, but our pharmacy folks are doing some testing and validation on it first. So we’re going to start that on the 10th,” Lott said. “And they can go to the Kaiser Permanente Hilo, Kona or Waimea clinic Monday through Friday from 8:30-11:30 a.m.”

Lott said Kaiser Permanente gave out 93,552 flu shots last season.

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