SAN MARCOS — A case of swine flu at Mission Hills High School, discovered April 29, triggered a school closure and flooded the San Marcos Health Center, or SMHC, with hundreds of patients, testing both organizations’ emergency response capabilities.
District Superintendent Kevin Holt gave the order to close Mission Hills for an unprecedented two weeks on the evening of May 1. The school had already begun planning two days prior, when the flu-stricken student, just back from a trip to Mexico, fell ill. Principal Brad Lichtman said his first goal was quick and accurate communication with school staff, students and their families.
“It was kind of a crisis,” Lichtman said. “No one likes to be in the dark. Everybody wants to know what’s happening.”
Coursework was sent out electronically to the students with computers and Internet access. For the remaining students, materials were made available for parents to pick up on campus. Current information was updated on the school’s Web site and its automated answering system.
The closure did affect more than instruction. The school’s sports season was also disrupted, potentially ruining the prospects for local athletes competing at a state level. The biggest hurdle was rescheduling the state-mandated STAR testing and the college advanced placement tests slated for the first half of May.
“If I had to pick a two-week period, I’d be hard-pressed to find a worse two-week period to shut down a high school,” Lichtman said.
Happily, the closure was rescinded just two days later after the Centers for Disease Control relaxed its procedures for containing swine flu. The four-day weekend had little impact on instruction and the school was allowed to reschedule the week of lost advanced placement testing. The more than 200 Mission Hills students who were barred from SAT testing on the Palomar College Campus on May 2 were rescheduled for May 16.
At SMHC, the school closure triggered a tidal wave of new patients, doubling the normal load to more than 500 patients a day. The center immediately canceled all routine physicals for healthy people.
“You don’t want well people coming to the doctor at a time like this,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ken Morris explained. “Physicals take a lot of time.”
The center set up tents in the parking lot May 4 to efficiently triage the patients. Center staff gave Tamiflu, an anti-flu medicine, to patients with worse than normal symptoms. SMHC is uncertain exactly how many patients with influenza-type illnesses actually had swine flu because the county lacked the facilities to test every patient.
After Mission Hills reopened May 6, the patient load dropped. SMHC packed up its tents and brought its operations back inside, but procedures are in place to rapidly redeploy the triage center should the need arise. It appears unlikely that the center will see a huge influx of patients in the near future, according to Planning and Communications Director Pia Mangini.
“It’s dying down, only because people are finally understanding that it’s very much like a regular flu,” Mangini said May 13. “While we continue to have an increase in patients and the number of people throughout the world with swine flu is increasing, the initial panic we saw the first two weeks is starting to fade.”
Despite the chaos the outbreak of swine flu brought to San Marcos, Lichtman and Morris believe the test was useful.
“I think any time you go through a real life drill … the best thing to do is to find out what worked and what didn’t work,” Morris said. “When you learn those things in real time it really helps to apply when it happens the next time around.”
“High school principals know that at any given moment, a crisis can hit a campus,” Lichtman said. “This experience reinforced how import it is to be prepared for the unknown.”