NYC School Nurse Recounts Swine Flu Triage

NYC School Nurse Recounts Swine Flu Triage

Associated Press / AP Online

July 11, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) — The line of sick students outside school nurse Mary Pappas’ door was too long. So she thrust thermometers and a pad of Post-It notes at a security guard: Take their temperatures and slap the numbers on their chests.

That was key to the triage the fateful April day that swine flu hit New York City’s Saint Francis Preparatory School, site of the nation’s most explosive school outbreak.

“I sent home 102 children that first day,” Pappas said. As the only nurse in a school of 2,700, “you’re it in a medical emergency.”

Pappas had the Obama administration’s swine flu summit riveted Thursday as she offered advice to other schools getting ready for the virus’ presumed resurgence in the fall.

Telephoning parents one at a time to come get their kids would take too long. So she told the students at the upscale Catholic school to whip out their cell phones and call their parents, and she went down the row updating each parent with their child’s temperature and condition.

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That won’t work everywhere, other school officials told the gathering. Lots of schools forbid cell phones; younger children don’t have them; others can’t afford them.

The audience scribbled notes — make sure you can reach parents fast.

Pappas already has made new plans for this fall. If illness strikes again, she won’t have to keep the students hacking on each other in her cramped office until parents arrive — she’s staked out an auditorium, where they can stay farther apart.

She’ll send text messages to parents’ cell phones. She’s ordered forehead thermometers instead of oral ones, faster and less messy.

Her bigger challenge is educating the students on basic hygiene steps to prevent infection: Cover coughs and sneezes, stay home if you’re sick and, the crowd favorite, “If it’s wet and it’s not yours, don’t touch it,” Pappas said.

Many schools lack nurses, and how much authority they wield varies widely. She offered advice to the federal government: “Every school needs a nurse.”

© YellowBrix 2009

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