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Crews Scrub Queens Schools Hit by Flu Outbreak

By ANEMONA HARTOCOLLIS

Published: May 15, 2009

Three public schools in Queens were being disinfected Friday morning after the city closed them because of outbreaks of swine flu. An assistant principal was in critical condition with the city’s most serious case of swine flu since the virus turned up here more than three weeks ago.

About two-dozen children who showed up at one of them, Public School 16 in Corona, at 7:30 a.m. were met by officials from the Department of Education and directed to return home.

A note on the door of from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that the school — along with two middle schools in Queens — would be closed for at least five days.

“These schools have experienced unusually high levels of influenza-like illness in recent days,” the note read. “We are also seeing an increase in flu activity in Queens more generally. We hope that these temporary closures will prevent new infections and avoid unnecessary illness.”

Just as many New Yorkers were beginning to forget the threat of swine flu, which surfaced last month and quickly spread around the globe, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg confirmed at a hastily called news conference on Thursday evening that it had re-emerged.

Colleagues identified the sick man as Mitchell Wiener, the assistant principal of Intermediate School 238 in Hollis, who on Friday was on a ventilator and being treated at Flushing Hospital Medical Center. His son, Adam Wiener, told The Associated Press on Friday that his father was suffering from kidney failure, dehydration and a lung infection.

Mr. Bloomberg said on Thurssday night that Mr. Wiener appeared to have had some health problems that could have made him more susceptible to the virus, and colleagues and friends of the educator said said he had diabetes and sometimes walked with a cane.

But on Friday morning, the younger Mr. Wiener told The A.P. that his father’s only pre-existing condition was “gout, which is unrelated to complications he’s experienced now."

In addition to Mr. Wiener, who is in his 50s, four students at I.S. 238 have been confirmed as having swine flu, officials said. More than 50 students at the school have been sent home with influenza-like symptoms since May 6.

The Education Department decided on Thursday to close I.S. 238 as well as P.S. 16 after 29 students went to the nurse’s office with flu-like symptoms, and I.S. 5 in Elmhurst, where 241 students were reported absent. Officials said the plan is to reopen those schools next Friday.

There was some confusion outside P.S. 16 on Friday as parents and children who had apparently not heard about the closing began arriving. There are about 1,500 students at the school, according to the education department.

"I didn’t know," said Susana Cruz, the mother of Madelyne Vaca,7, one of the people who were outside of the school.. "It’s a little scary because everything was O.K. yesterday."

Ms. Cruz said she was unaware any children had become ill and said her daughter had no flu-like symptoms.

Madeline Bono, who has been a crossing guard at the school for 11 years and learned about the swine flu cases on Thursday, said: "I’m surprised there’s so many of them coming today. They must not be listening to the news."

Mr. Bloomberg said there was no clear connection among the three schools, which are, “reasonably far apart, five or six miles,” He said they were being closed because the flu, whose formal name is A(H1N1), appeared to spread very rapidly.

The school closings came nearly a month after the first case of swine flu to surface in the United States was detected at St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, where several students had gone to Mexico on spring break. The flu spread rapidly there, infecting hundreds of students within days, though all have since recovered. Anxious New Yorkers, many without any symptoms, taxed hospital emergency rooms, and bought up supplies of hospital masks and Tamiflu from neighborhood pharmacies.

The mayor — who was joined at the City Hall news conference on Thursday night by the city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, and the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein — began by acknowledging that the new outbreak was somewhat unexpected.

“I am about to make an announcement that I had hoped we could avoid,” Mr. Bloomberg said. But he added the public health system had been effective in detecting the outbreak, and “we are acting as promptly as the evidence requires us to do.”

Gov. David A. Paterson, who also joined the mayor Thursday night, urged the public “to remain alert rather than alarmed,” And said Mr. Wiener “is in our prayers.”

Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for the health department, said that 178 New York City residents had tested positive for swine flu as of Thursday, but that the number was deceptive because the city had scaled down its testing efforts as the symptoms in most people turned out to be mild and not much different from seasonal flu. The city continued, however, to look for patterns.

Teachers visited Mr. Wiener’s wife and three sons on Thursday night at the hospital’s intensive care unit. “He’s fighting for his life,” said one of Mr. Wiener’s sons, who declined to give his name. His colleagues said he was a popular and effective school administrator.

A neighbor of Mr. Wiener said that his wife, Bonnie, had said her husband was sick as early as Tuesday. The neighbor, Donna Nieves, said she had seen Ms. Wiener in the laundry room Tuesday night, and quoted her as saying, “Oh, oh, Mitch is so sick with swine flu; half the school’s shut down because everyone’s getting sick.”

Ms. Nieves said she returned to the laundry room with disinfectant wipes and began wiping down the washers and dryers, saying to Ms. Wiener, “I’m sorry, I just can’t afford to get sick.” She said that was the last time she saw her. On Wednesday morning, a neighbor told Ms. Nieves that Mr. Wiener, wearing a surgical mask, had been taken away by ambulance.

Kvon Williams-Sparks, 13, an eighth grader at I.S. 238, said that he had noticed that janitors were cleaning the rest rooms more often, and that Mr. Wiener had not been at work since Monday.

“On Monday, I found a notice in the library that said, ‘If you are sick, you should stay home,’ ” Kvon said. “But nobody has otherwise talked to us.”

Asked if the city had let its guard down too soon, Mr. Bloomberg replied: “Most people haven’t come down with it. You’ve got to remember, we’re talking about 4,500 students here in a city of 8.4 million. It may very well be that a lot of people have it and the symptoms are so minor that they don’t even know it. That’s one of the things we’ll be studying.”

Reporting was contributed by Sewell Chan, Javier C. Hernandez, Angela Macropoulos, Mick Meenan, Kenny Porpora and Liz Robbins

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