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Schooling the Swine 

First shots fired in Humboldt County's war against the H1N1 virus

Firefighters stood in line with school kids at Eureka's Alice Birney Elementary School Tuesday morning, as nurses with the county's public health office administered shots or nasal spray to each. It was the first day of Humboldt County's massive inoculation campaign against swine flu, which is targeted first and foremost at youth and emergency personnel, and while the decision to combine the two populations was primarily a matter of logistics, it did have some happy side effects. According to Heather Muller, the county public health department's spokesperson, the children drew some comfort from watching their togged-out heros -- firefighters, policemen, ambulance drivers -- step up to the nurses and get their shots.

"The kids were watching the firefighters when it happened," said county health spokesperson Heather Muller. "They were asking them, "Did it hurt? Did it hurt?'"

Every little bit counted. The day-long clinic -- the first of a series that will take place in schools all over the county over the next six weeks -- was judged by everyone to be a great success, despite logistical challenges ranging from complicated paperwork to language barriers to fear of the vaccine. About half the parents at the school elected to allow their children to receive the free vaccination. As the county takes its show on the road in the upcoming days, it'll take the lessons learned from Alice Birney and apply them elsewhere. Keeping the adults in the mix may be one of them.

The school-based clinics are the culmination of several months of planning led by the health department and the county Office of Education, and it turns out that when Humboldt County started drawing up its strategy for combating H1N1 -- the so-called "swine flu," which has taken root all over the United States this season -- it decided to do things a bit differently than many of the other counties in California. The bulk of the nation's supply of vaccine is being distributed through local health offices, and in California, at least, each office is drawing up its own plans for deploying their supply. In Humboldt, the decision was made to target schools first.

"It was a public health decision," said Charlene Pellatz, the county's emergency preparedness coordinator. "Many counties are not doing school clinics. We decided, based on the five vulnerable populations and who was being hit most frequently, that it was important to get children vaccinated first."

The Centers for Disease Control have identified five segments of the population that are either especially at risk for the disease or in frequent contact with those who may be: youth ages 6 months to 24 years, pregnant women, emergency service providers, people with asthma or other underlying conditions, and caregivers of children under the age of six months. Since pregnant women and ill people are likely to be in contact with their physician, and can receive the vaccine that way, the county and the school system decided to conduct a mass inoculation campaign for children at their schools.

Since limited funds made it infeasible to hold a clinic at every single school in the county, several schools in a region will often be consolidated at a single school. On the Wednesday after the Alice Birney clinic, Dow's Prarie Elementary in McKinleyville was scheduled to hold its own. Students from Trinidad, Big Lagoon and Orick were scheduled to be bused or driven to McKinleyville to get their vaccine.

Separate clinics will be held on the campuses of Humboldt State University and College of the Redwoods, which will be open to any students, faculty and staff ages 24 or younger. Because of vaccine shortages, vaccination clinics open to the general public are not expected to open until early next year.

Meanwhile, illness and hospitalization from the H1N1 flu continues to spread in the county. Last week, Humboldt County suffered its third fatality from the disease. In this case, the woman who died -- her name was not released -- was in her mid-50s, and did not belong to any of the high risk groups outlined by the CDC.

Humboldt State, which saw a spate of infections as school was beginning a few weeks ago, continues to be affected by the disease. "There were several students that were taken to the hospital over the weekend," said HSU President Rollin Richmond Monday. The students' flu-like symptoms had not been definitively tied to the H1N1 virus, but according to Frank Whitlatch, the university's associate vice president of marketing and communications, the operating assumption is that cases of the flu, in this area and at this time, are most likely cases of swine flu.

Many in the county still view vaccination warily. Historically, vaccination rates for all sorts of maladies have lagged the rest of the state and the nation. But while vaccination is seen as a central tool in the battle against the flu in Humboldt County, it's far from the only one. Kimberly Comet, risk manager for the Humboldt County Office of Education, said Tuesday afternoon that her agency -- like most -- is also heavily promoting common-sense strategies for containing the disease.

"Vaccination is only one part of combating the flu," Comet said. "What we really want to put the emphasis on is good hygiene. Cover your cough, wash your hands well and really stay home if you're sick. That's the emphasis we're really trying to push."

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