Media reports spewing forth from across the country have characterized this year’s flu season as one of extreme danger. In a conference call delivered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, CDC director, noted that as of Jan. 26, there have been 37 reported cases of pediatric deaths due to influenza.
“The flu season has continued to be challenging, and flu has been intense across the United States,” said the director.
In Pittsburgh, Jewish professionals have noticed a rise in flu-related absences from schools, services and related activities.
“It’s been horrible,” said Jennifer Perer Slattery, director of Congregation Beth Shalom’s Early Learning Center. “We’ve had at least 10 staff members diagnosed with it and between 20 to 25 children. It’s pretty scary, and it’s very serious.”
“There have been a lot of kids absent due to colds and flu-like viruses,” echoed Jennifer Bails, Community Day School’s director of marketing and communication.
Apart from regular attention to cleanliness, extra effort has been made to prevent the spread of sickness at local institutions.
“There’s been a lot of disinfecting going on,” said Slattery, who explained that maintenance workers have routinely cleaned door handles and other areas of high exposure.
At Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, Rabbi Stacy Petersohn canceled services on a recent Friday night.
“I didn’t want anyone to take the risk,” said Petersohn.
Representatives from Community Day School, Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh all said that precautionary steps have been taken to reduce the transmission of disease.
Although there have been documented cases of the flu at Yeshiva Schools, “I don’t think it’s been disproportionately more than in the past,” said Rabbi Chezky Rosenfeld, Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh’s director of development.
“We encourage hand sanitation; students do not share lunches; and we advise parents to keep children home if they show flu symptoms,” added Rosenfeld.
Similar practices occur at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, said Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy’s principal.
“We already pride ourselves on promoting proper hygiene when it comes to hand washing, food preparation and hand sanitation, and we always make it a point of emphasis during flu season.”
At Temple Sinai there are “wall-mounted hand sanitizers all over the building, and we have a culture in which people are encouraged to wash hands,” said Rabbi Jamie Gibson, the congregation’s senior rabbi.
Similar dispensers are outside of each classroom at Congregation Beth Shalom, said Slattery.
“Parents are supposed to use them before entering,” and students are instructed to wash their hands at the classroom sink, she explained.
But preventing the spread of illness is not only about clean skin and spotless knobs, common sense is also involved.
“I sometimes think that we’re so busy with our jobs that parents may bring kids back before they’re well,” said Slattery.
“It’s about everyone being a good citizen and helping their fellow parents,” echoed Bails. “We feel badly of course for the children who are suffering from sickness, and it’s especially hard on working parents.”
Even so, bringing a sick child to school increases the likelihood of others becoming ill.
In a letter home to parents, Yeshiva Schools shared information from the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“You can pass the flu to someone else both before and while you are sick. Adults may be able to infect others beginning one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. Some people, especially young children and people with weakened immune systems, might be able to infect others for an even longer time.”
Added the Department of Health: “Everyone 6 months of age and older should get a flu vaccine every season.”
Said Fitzgerald: “The most important things to remember are to protect yourself from flu by washing your hands often, especially if you are caring for someone who is sick. Protect others by staying home, seeing a doctor if you are sick and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And remember it’s not too late to get a flu shot for yourself and for your child.”
While not substituting for a visit to the doctor or necessary care, for those under the weather at Hillel JUC, a special program is in place, said Danielle Kranjec, the organization’s senior Jewish educator.
“We have a chicken soup hotline where parents can call up, and we deliver hot kosher chicken soup and matzah balls and challah rolls to the student’s door.”
The items, which could be substituted for gluten-free or vegetarian options, are “delivered either by staff or fellow student who check in on the sick student,” added Julia Katz, Hillel JUC’s director of development.
“It’s a nice bit of community building between the students and allows parents who are far away to know that their kids are getting the Jewish penicillin they need.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz