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Swine flu outbreak strikes St. Francis

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St. Francis Preparatory in Fresh Meadows shut down this week after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44 students and staff at the nation’s largest Catholic high school had swine flu, prompting classmates to raise concerns about the potentially deadly virus that has killed more than 150 people and sickened over 1,600 in Mexico.*

About a dozen St. Francis students went to Cancun, Mexico for their spring break that ran from April 9 to April 17. The first death from the flu in Mexico occurred April 12 in Oaxaca. There were no confirmed cases of swine flu in Cancun as of Tuesday.

“It’s pretty scary because I’m in very close contact with them a lot of the time,” St. Francis Prep senior Tristan Akong said of his fellow students diagnosed with swine flu. “To think that they are the ones who might have brought the virus back is pretty scary.”

Akong, a Springfield Gardens resident, never experienced any flu−like symptoms.

“It definitely was not a school−sponsored trip to Mexico, and St. Francis Prep for many years has notified parents well before Easter break that they should not allow children to go on unsupervised trips to Mexico,” St. Francis Principal Brother Leonard Conway said. He announced Tuesday that the school would close for the rest of the week rather than reopening Wednesday.

More than 150 students complained of flu−like symptoms last Thursday and Friday, according to the city Health Department. The nurse at St. Francis notified the department about the influx of students with aches and pains last Thursday.

PS 177 in Fresh Meadows, a school for autistic children, closed Tuesday afternoon after 82 students and 40 staff called in sick.

The Prep students with swine flu so far only have a mild version of the disease that has unleashed waves of concerns about a pandemic throughout the world, causing the U.S. government to declare a public health emergency Sunday. More than 70 individuals, many of whom had visited Mexico, have come down with swine flu in New York, Kansas, California, Texas and Ohio.

“The St. Francis students confirmed with swine flu are improving,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Some of those who have swine flu are athletes, according to St. Francis students.

James Tirado, a soccer player at St. Francis, went to New York Hospital Queens in Flushing Monday night after he continued to have chest congestion days after the worst of his flu had subsided. He tested negative for swine flu.

“It was me and five kids who were waiting at the hospital last night,” said Tirado, a senior. “A lot of kids have been going to the hospitals to get tested, even if they don’t have any symptoms.”

Oakland Gardens resident Frances Pugliese, whose daughter Liana is a sophomore at St. Francis, said she was especially concerned about the flu because “it doesn’t seem like it’s reached its full capacity yet.”

“When you hear what is happening in Mexico, that could be us in a couple of weeks,” Pugliese added.

City health officials, Bloomberg and U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D−Forest Hills) have urged residents concerned about their health to consult physicians, but not to panic about the virus.

“If you had to pick a good place for something as bad as this to happen, it would be New York City,” Weiner said outside St. Francis Prep Monday morning. “We have health care infrastructure that can handle this.”

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e−mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718−229−0300, Ext. 174.

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