SWINE FLU OUTBREAK: Student body rattled as focus turns to Prep

St. Francis Prep senior George Koutsothanasis says that he was feeling ill last week and was tested for swine flu. He received a negative result Monday. Photo by Christina Santucci
By Ivan Pereira and Christina Santucci

Students at St. Francis Prep and their parents have been coping with mixed emotions as the school confronts its swine flu outbreak.

Dozens of students from the Fresh Meadows Catholic high school went to the doctor or Long Island Jewish Hospital after the campus was closed for the weekend for sanitization. The problem began last Thursday when dozens of teenagers began experiencing sore throats, severe coughing, fever and other flu−like symptoms, according to students and parents.

By the middle of the day he nurse’s office in the nation’s largest Catholic high school was packed with teens who felt under the weather.

“There were about 30 to 40 kids who were outside of the nurse’s office at that time,” said Tristan Akong, a senior from Springfield Gardens.

As of Tuesday, the city Department of Health had confirmed 44 cases of swine flu among students and staff at Prep and the agency had identified three more probable cases within the school’s population.

Several Prep students took a trip to Cancun, Mexico during the week−long Easter vacation two weeks ago. The country had reported at least 150 swine flu deaths as of Tuesday and it has been identified by health organizations and American political leaders as the possible epicenter of the outbreak.

As the teenagers went to their doctors and hospitals to get checked for the swine flu, more and more Prep students grew concerned about their health. With nearly 2,700 students heading to dozens of classrooms everyday, students were unsure if they had been sitting or walking next to one of the infected people.

“I explained to Liana that she was in that school for five days, coming in contact with sick children, breathing the air, having them shake your hands and coughing near your face,” said Frances Pugliese, a nurse whose daughter Liana is a Prep sophomore. “The reality is that she is susceptible to it.”

Nevertheless, she still planned to send her back to school Wednesday before classes were canceled for the rest of the week.

The trip to Mexico was not an official school outing, according to St. Francis Prep’s principal, Brother Leonard Conway, and many students were furious that their peers went abroad without taking precautions.

“Those kids seemed to be more loose,” said Prep senior George Koutsothanasis. “Their parents sent them there without knowing what was going on.”

Koutsothanasis, who stayed at home during the break, said he went to Long Island Jewish Hospital Sunday after he began experiencing flu−like symptoms at the end of last week. The medical center had a special room dedicated solely to Prep students.

“They didn’t look sick. A lot of us were just going as a precaution,” said Koutsothanasis, who found out Monday that he tested negative for all types of flu viruses.

Many of the students said they would have no problem returning to campus when the school reopens Monday. The students said they felt safer knowing that the school had the building completely decontaminated over the weekend and that many of their peers tested negative.

In addition, the school has set up an online survey for students and teachers on its Web site that inquires about their health status and medical treatment.

“I think they’re really good at handling these situations,” Koutsothanasis said of his teachers and administrators.

Reach reporters Ivan Pereira and Christina Santucci by e−mail at news@timesledger.com or phone at 718−229−0300.

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