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SWINE FLU OUTBREAK: Bloomberg urges calm response, downplays threat

Mayor Michael Bloomberg maintained a measured, calm tone as he told New Yorkers this week not to overestimate the threat the swine flu outbreak at St. Francis Preparatory School posed to the rest of the city after several students traveled to Mexico on Easter break.

By Tuesday afternoon, health officials had confirmed 44 cases of swine flu at the Fresh Meadows school. A child from the Bronx and a Brooklyn woman also had confirmed cases, Bloomberg said during a press briefing. Both had connections to Mexico, he said.

There were no other confirmed cases in the city, but PS 177 near St. Francis reported 80 students feeling ill, including one student with a sibling at St. Francis, and the Ascension School in Manhattan reported several sick children whose symptoms resembled swine flu.

Bloomberg told a packed press room at City Hall Monday that the city believed that more than 100 people at St. Francis Prep were infected.

He even suggested that the disease contracted by the St. Francis students may have been another variant, pointing out that all of their symptoms have been relatively mild and that all but a handful of students have shown improvement since going home sick last Thursday.

“In Mexico, the results are very different,” he said. “We have seen a kind of flu here that does not seem to grow.”

But Bloomberg also confirmed that some of the St. Francis Prep students had recently traveled to Mexico, where swine flu is reported to have killed at least 152 people.

After the outbreak at St. Francis was identified as swine flu, city Health Department officials distributed e−mail surveys to students Sunday using the school’s comprehensive student e−mail list, Health Department Commissioner Tom Frieden said.

“By mid−morning, we had responses from 750 students and staff, nearly one−third of the school,” he said.

The city has also maintained regular contact with all intensive care units at area hospitals, none of which have reported the serious flu symptoms often associated with the virus, Frieden said, noting the city has more than 1 million doses of the vaccine Tamiflu that can be delivered to hospitals.

Officials also said that after declaring a federal health emergency, the government was prepared to send shipments of Tamiflu and other antiviral medications to respond to an epidemic.

But the federal Centers for Disease Control have said existing flu vaccines are only effective against swine flu if taken up to 48 hours after contracting the virus, which takes between one and three days before producing symptoms.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clark (D−Brooklyn) said authorities were working to ensure anti−flu supplies were in stock at border crossings throughout the Southwest.

“We expect that as we continue to look for cases, we will find them,” she said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e−mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 154.

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