Minnesota schools with cases of H1N1 influenza could remain open under a new plan released today by the Minnesota Department of Health.
The agency says it is changing its flu closure guidelines to bring them in line with the state's approach to seasonal influenza. The policy shift is due at least in part to the mild nature of flu illnesses so far.
Health officials say closing schools won't help contain the virus, particularly if kids congregate in malls or other places where they could transmit the virus just as easily.
None of Minnesota's seven suspected or confirmed cases have required hospitalization. The change has already prompted Orono School officials to reopen three schools tomorrow. The high school will remain closed for at least one more day.
While school closures are an inconvenience for parents, Infectious disease expert Michael Osterholm says he was involved in the discussions and he says it had nothing to do with public outcry over school closures.
"There really hasn't been push back," he said. "It's more a matter of public health just looking at the data and saying we're here to tell you what we know and what we don't know. This is the truth. And the truth is that we wouldn't recommend closing schools in a seasonal flu situation of a similar nature."
Minnesota's approach may adopted more widely in the coming days. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it is still trying to figure out the best advice, including the possibility that schools remain open while asking sick kids to stay at home for a week. Just two days ago, the CDC said schools should consider closing for 14 days if they had a probable flu case.
The state is also changing the way it monitors the outbreak, moving toward only testing patients who have been hospitalized with suspected flu symptoms.
State officials have received 462 specimens so far, and of those 443 have been tested. The number of suspected cases has been very small compared to the number that have been tested.
While the influenza outbreak appears to be mild, officials say there is still cause for concern. They are asking schools to observe students, staff and faculty for influenza and have ill people stay home. The Health Department is also encouraging the continued importance for everyone of self-protection measures like handwashing and covering coughs and sneezes.