One confirmed case of swine flu was scary enough, but Jacqueline Civitano spent this week worrying as five family members developed high fevers, coughing, dizziness and other signs of the virus that’s sweeping the globe.
By Wednesday, the fear had subsided for the Floral Park, N.Y., mother of seven, who was simply stuck in the house under isolation trying to entertain a crew of mildly sick, stir-crazy kids.
But she said there’s still plenty of worry to go around, judging by the community response to the outbreak, which began a week ago, when her 17-year-old son, Frankie, became one of more than 50 students from St. Francis Preparatory School in Fresh Meadows, N.Y., to contract the potentially deadly illness. A group of students from that school had just returned from a trip to Mexico, although Frankie wasn't among them.
“It was handled very poorly,” said Civitano, 41, a lawyer with the New York state court system. “It went from being not a big deal to being this big panic.”
So far, the U.S. has confirmed more than 120 swine flu cases in 17 states, and one death of a toddler who traveled from Mexico to Texas for treatment. In that country, 168 deaths have been linked to the outbreak and nearly 3,000 may be sick.
But when the swine flu was discovered in New York last week, communication lagged, information wasn’t clear and school officials’ reactions to news of the virus ranged from appropriate concern to a complete lack of interest, said Civitano, whose children range in age from 2 to 24 and who span the educational spectrum from elementary school through college.
“I just think we’re very ill prepared,” she said.
It took news crews parked in front of St. Francis and a text message about scores of sick kids from her son’s girlfriend before Civitano understood that the seemingly simple flu that kept Frankie home last Friday actually was something far more serious.
“When I called him in sick, they didn’t tell me that so many other kids were sick,” Civitano said. “Then we seen on the news they were testing for swine flu.”
Civitano said she heard nothing from the school, despite the growing roster of illnesses.
Brother Leonard Conway, principal of St. Francis, said health officials weren’t able to test suspected cases until Friday or confirm them until Sunday and school staff didn't want to speculate.
“We updated the Web site immediately each time we got confirmed, accurate information,” he said.
Hospital confirms flu infection
But Frankie’s 103-degree fever and his cough and headache worried Civitano, who called her family doctor, Dr. Vincent Alfieri, on Saturday. He prescribed preventive doses of antiviral medication for the family, and then sent Civitano to North Shore University Hospital, where doctors on Sunday confirmed that Frankie had a Type A influenza infection that didn’t match any already circulating strains.
“Because other kids had tested positive for swine flu, they assumed that’s what he had,” said Civitano, noting that Frankie’s sample was sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for confirmation.
By Monday, Civitano’s other children started coming down with flu symptoms. First Anthony, 19, who had a mild cough and sore throat, and then Brendan, 10, who has health problems, including diabetes.
“Anything for him can become so much more serious,” Civitano said.
Indeed, Brendan’s symptoms were severe: high fever, extreme headache and cough, nausea, dizziness and sensitivity to light and sound.
Nicholas, 2, was next with milder symptoms, and then Katie, Civitano’s 24-year-old daughter-in-law, called to say she’d come down with flu after visiting over the weekend. Fortunately, Katie’s 3-month-old baby was spared.
All this illness naturally concerned Civitano, who had heard news reports of deaths in Mexico. But she approached the situation with a matter-of-fact attitude:
“I said, ‘Great, here we go,’ ” recalled Civitano, noting that neither she nor her husband, Paul, a 45-year-old carpentry supervisor, have been ill at all.
In between comforting her sickly kids, Civitano reached out to alert school officials that others might have been exposed — and was surprised at the range of responses.
At the University of New Haven in New Haven, Conn., officials asked Anthony to stay away from class.
“Best to keep him home, just in case,” said Julie Winkel, a school spokesperson.
But at St. John’s University in Queens, staff told Christopher, 20, who had no symptoms, to come on in.
Since then, school officials have confirmed a case of swine flu in one student, alerted the campus community and urged students to take protective measures, said spokesman Dominic Scianna.
School officials dismiss concerns
And at Our Lady of the Snows, the elementary school where 5-year-old Katherine goes, school officials appeared to dismiss her concerns out of hand, Civitano said.
“I thought, ‘OK, you know what, I’d done my part,’ ” she said, noting that she kept Katherine home even though the child didn’t become ill. “I’m not going to take a chance on being responsible for infecting other kids.”
Sister Roberta Oberle, the school’s principal, declined to comment on the Civitano family’s situation.
Everyone at Civitano’s house is recovering now. That appears to be one hallmark of this virus: a sudden onset and an equally sudden easing of symptoms, she said.
“Brendan really got the worse dose,” Civitano said. “But by yesterday, it was like it didn’t happen.”
No one can return to work or school, however, until a week has elapsed since the last onset of illness, and until Dr. Alfieri clears them with a written note.
Civitano is certain life will return to normal, despite her brush with a near-pandemic virus. But she worries that other cases, in other communities, might not be so mild.
She wants school and public health officials to let parents and others know what’s happening early, and for them to take steps to prevent others from being exposed.
“You need to take this seriously,” she said. “You need to not downplay this, because when other kids get sick, it’s going to be too late.”