Flu panic sweeps Texas; Fort Worth orders schools closed

FORT WORTH — The Fort Worth school district shut down all 144 of its campuses until at least May 8 shortly before the first Tarrant County case of swine flu was confirmed at one of its campuses late Wednesday.

Tarrant County health officials advised the 80,000-student district to close after four probable cases of swine flu had involved district students.

As an added precaution, officials advised parents to keep any children from the district away from daycare centers, movie theaters, restaurants or any other public places.

Superintendent Melody JohnsonÖ urged employers to be flexible with families during this sudden and unprecedented closure.

"The ripple effect of this is huge," she said. "This is a very rare place to be in."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Thursday night that a 12-year-old girl from McLean Middle School had the swine flu.

The district will notify parents about the school closures through the media and via an automated telephone service

Each school in the district will be cleaned with a bleached-based cleaner to ensure all surfaces, walls and common areas are disinfected.

Dr. Sandra Parker, medical director of the Tarrant County Health Department, said letters were sent to people who may have had close contact with the sick student or the other three probable cases telling them they may need to contact a doctor.

She said Tarrant County now has 10 probable cases of swine flu and her department is investigating another five from surrounding counties. So far, no other probable case in Tarrant County involved children from other districts or private schools. However, she said the number of cases is “very fluid” and can change quickly.

Parker also said her office recommended closing the Fort Worth district to prevent the spread of the illness since the district is large and so many students have siblings at other schools.

Of the 10 probable cases in Tarrant County only one is connected to a person who had recently traveled to Mexico and two are related to each other, Parker said.

Johnson said only essential staff would report to work Thursday. The district has 11,000 employees, about 5,000 of which are teachers.

Johnson said she was talking with Texas Education Agency officials to determine when and if the district will need to make up the lost days and what will happen with the state testing scheduled for his week. She said district officials were not sure how the shutdown will affect payroll.

Earlier Wednesday, Johnson had closed four campuses after probable cases were reported at those schools. They were McLean Middle, McLean 6th Grade Center , South Hills Elementary and Westcliff Elementary.

School officials in Cleburne, Texas, shut down all 11 of that district's campuses after four probable cases were reported.

Texas education officials postponed all public high school athletic competition until May 11.

The number of probable cases in Tarrant County jumped to 10 Wednesday with five new cases emerging from lab tests, health officials said.

In Dallas County , there are three confirmed cases and 11 probable cases, officials said. The confirmed cases were in Mesquite, Dallas and Richardson .

As fear of the illness spread, North Texas residents began pouring into hospital emergency rooms, doctor’s offices and clinics, many of them with only minor sniffles. That prompted a warning from medical officials that patients who believe they may have been exposed should go to their doctor or clinic, not to an emergency room.

“The first line of defense does not need to be the emergency room,” said Whitney Jodry, the spokesperson for Texas Health Harris Methodist Fort Worth hospital. “We always want people to come to the emergency room in the event of a true medical emergency. If you think you have swine flu, go to your regular, primary care doctor. They can swab you and refer you on if necessary.”

Local pharmacies also reported that supplies of the antiviral medication Tamiflu and surgical masks had been depleted, although deliveries were expected within days.

Mayor Robert Cluck of Arlington, Texas, located between Dallas and Fort Worth, said he has been notified about five potential swine flu cases in the city. Officials expect to have more information about its pandemic preparedness Thursday, he said.

"We know we are going to have swine flu in Arlington ," said Cluck, who is a doctor. "We’ve been preparing for this for years, and we will take care of people.’’

With 17 confirmed cases in Texas, Gov. Rick Perry announced a disaster declaration and the state began acquiring more antiviral medication from the CDC in Atlanta.

Earlier Wednesday in Houston, a Mexico City toddler who had traveled to south Texas with his family to visit relatives became the first confirmed death in the U.S. from swine flu, according to the CDC.

Texas health officials said that another toddler and a pregnant woman, both of whom are critically ill, are likely infected as well.

Their cases are unconfirmed by the CDC, but officials believe their condition is connected to the outbreak, said State Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey.

Officials expect to encounter more hospitalized victims of swine flu, as well as additional deaths, as the outbreak widens, Lakey said. The

Top Texas officials urged residents to remain calm, pointing out that most of the people in the U.S. who have fallen ill have only suffered mild symptoms and that the state’s influenza pandemic response plan is in full motion.

“We have not only rehearsed this plan repeatedly, we have honed our team approach to disaster management during our response to numerous storms and wildfires and floods,” said Perry. “There is no need to panic.”

Tarrant County health officials provided no details on where the flu cases are occurring. Earlier, officials said that one probable case affected a 12-year-old Fort Worth girl who attends McLean Middle School.People involved in the five new cases range in age from 6 to 56, with three being “school age.” and one having a history of travel to Mexico.

Since Friday, Tarrant County public health has tested 74 suspected cases of swine flu identified by physicians, clinics and hospitals. Of those, 11 were considered probable infections.

The city of Fort Worth had not made a decision Wednesday night about closing parks, recreation centers or other municipal facilities, spokesman Jason Lamers said.

Statewide, school closures are affecting about 53,000 students, said Robert Scott, Texas Education Agency commissioner.

The majority of public schools in the state are operating normally, said Robert Scott, Texas Education Agency commissioner.

“That being said, we want to send a message that there will be no penalty for any district — financial or academic — if they take the steps of closing a campus or district.’’ Scott said. ``We will offer waiver days for their school calendar to make sure they don’t have to make them up in the summer.”

The University Interscholastic League announced that it will postpone athletic competitions, suspending the baseball season and eliminating the regional track championship, until May 11. All UIL academic competitions, including the state meet that was to begin May 7, are also postponed and will be rescheduled later.

Asked if the state would consider ordering all schools closed, Scott said that could be considered at some point but “We’re not there yet.”

The Fort Worth district closed McLean Middle, McLean 6th Grade Center, South Hills Elementary and Westcliff Elementary through at least May 8. Officials said each school had one probable flu case.

Superintendent Melody Johnson said earlier that schools would not be closed until a case was confirmed. However, since it was taking longer than the expected 48 hours for cases to be confirmed, Johnson said she will now close campuses if a probable case arises.

“I have to err on the side of caution for these schools,’’ Johnson said.

The probable cases in Cleburne involve high school students who began showing symptoms last week. Officials said all are doing well and have not been hospitalized. The Cleburne district has nearly 7,000 students.

Cleburne Superintendent Ronny Beard said he closed the high school and two alternative schools after learning the teens likely had the illness early Wednesday. But as news spread, he said many parents withdrew their children from other schools and he then closed all schools for the rest of the week.

Joshua High School in Johnson County notified parents that all activities that expose students to the general public have been cancelled.

At Texas Wesleyan University, officials conducted an awards ceremony Tuesday with no handshaking, said Chuck Burton, assistant vice president for marketing and communications. About 200 people attended the event in Martin Hall.

In the Northwest school district, one student at J. Lyndal Hughes Elementary School and one student at Chisholm Trail Middle School had suspected cases of swine flu, said Lesley Weaver,Ö Northwest school district spokeswoman.