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6 cases of swine flu confirmed in Pima County

Dr. Michelle McDonald speaks during the H1N1 influenza press conference on the flu cases in Pima County.

Dr. Michelle McDonald speaks during the H1N1 influenza press conference on the flu cases in Pima County.

Six cases of swine flu have been confirmed in Pima County – four on the Tohono O’odham nation, one in Tucson and one in Marana, according to the Pima County Health Department.

Another 11 cases are suspected, but have not been confirmed.

The number of confirmed swine flu cases in Arizona rose to 17 over the weekend, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services Web site.

Last week four cases of swine flu were confirmed in Arizona, all school-age children in Maricopa County who have either recovered or are recovering, officials said. The state sent samples in at least 52 more suspected cases to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, about half of which were from Pima County, said Patti Woodcock, spokeswoman for the Pima County Health Department.

If cases of the virus are found in the county, then local officials will begin “active surveillance” of hospitals and clinics, Woodcock said. That means health workers will track patients’ contacts and retrace their steps, much as they did during a spring 2008 outbreak of measles.

As they did with the measles outbreak, county health officials are urging people experiencing flulike symptoms to call their doctors instead of going to doctors’ offices or hospital emergency rooms, potentially exposing more people, Woodcock said in a statement Thursday.

In the event of an outbreak here, the county’s allotment of antiviral medication would be used only to treat patients, not to vaccinate others, Woodcock said.

Maricopa County’s health director, Dr. Bob England, said none of the patients who had the swine flu there has been hospitalized or suffered severe symptoms.

“It isn’t going to stop there,” England said. “We have lots of testing to be done, and in the coming days we’re going to have more (confirmed cases).”

England and state Health Services Department Interim Director Will Humble said it appears the swine flu that has spread across the nation in the past week isn’t any more severe than a normal influenza. If evidence mounts that that is the case, school closures could end quickly.

About 36,000 people die each year in the United States from the regular flu. The U.S. has reported only one death outside Mexico from the swine flu – a Mexican toddler who visited Texas with his family.

As a precaution, Tucson Unified School District leaders have canceled school field trips Friday to the Tucson Convention Center for the Tucson Symphony Orchestra’s “Young People’s Concert.”

Fifth-grade visits to TUSD middle schools Friday have also been cancelled.

Tarwater Elementary and Hartford Sylvia Encinas Elementary schools in the Chandler Unified School District were ordered closed for seven days. Moon Mountain Elementary School in northwest Phoenix was ordered closed on Wednesday.

Health officials said there was no known relationship between the two Chandler-area students. In the third new case reported on Thursday, the student had been home during the infectious period and could not have infected any classmates.

State Department of Health Services officials also learned Thursday that a 19-year-old Northern Arizona University student had a “probable” case of swine flu.

NAU and the Coconino County Health Department were awaiting confirmation from the CDC, but a school spokesman said it will continue to operate under normal business conditions.

“We have a residential campus here, we’re right at the tail end of the semester, finals start next week,” said Tom Bauer, a NAU spokesman. “We don’t feel this would be in the best interest of anyone at the moment to be thinking about closing because of one ‘probable’ (case). We’re not being blasé about this. We are very concerned with all of our students.”

The first case was confirmed Wednesday in an 8-year-old northwest Phoenix boy. Although he had returned to school, health officials ordered his elementary school closed for a week to prevent the disease from spreading.

England said in that case, the child had not traveled to Mexico, where the flu strain was first identified.

“There was no travel history, which, again, underscores my thought – that it’s here. It’s in the community. There are probably many more people infected than we realized,” England said. “Nobody’s cared about it because it hasn’t made people all that sick.”

The student whose illness prompted the closure of the second school also had recovered. The third student hadn’t attended school while contagious, and the fourth case is being investigated, England said.

The CDC and officials in several states have confirmed at least 120 cases of the swine flu as of Thursday. They are in New York, Texas, California, South Carolina, Delaware and scattered cases in Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado, Georgia and Maine.

Health officials said people should treat the swine flu strain like any other flu – contact your personal doctor, and avoid spreading the virus by staying home and covering sneezes and coughs. Patients should seek additional medical help if fever persists or spikes, breathing is difficult or other severe symptoms develop.

Officials were worried that people unnecessarily visiting hospitals or clinics could make it hard to tend to trauma patients. Dr. Jeffrey Schultz, pre-hospital director at John C. Lincoln Hospital in Phoenix, said an increase in patients could affect the ability to care for them. Furthermore, people have been coming to the hospital to request they be tested for the flu, even if they don’t show symptoms.

“If you’re not having any of those symptoms, it’s unlikely, even if you request that test . . . you’d be getting that test. That wouldn’t be good health care,” Schultz said.

Arizona health officials have tested more than 400 samples since Monday in a state lab and determined that about 60 percent of them were seasonal flu.

“We’re chugging them in and out,” state health department spokeswoman Laura Oxley said. “We’re prepared to go around the clock, (but) we haven’t had to do that yet.”

Oxley said the state could receive test kits by the end of the week from the CDC that will enable health officials to confirm the virus themselves.

“We are working on it,” she said. “We want to do it, and life will be a lot easier when that comes.”

Citizen Staff Writer Ty Bowers and the Arizona Republic contributed to this article.

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