FROM THE MAYOR'S DESK ...
Yesterday was the first day of class in New York City public schools. It's always a time of mixed emotions - children are nervous, parents are nervous and maybe a little relieved! - but this year carries the additional concerns that the H1N1 flu virus that cropped up in our schools during the spring will return again this fall. No one knows for certain whether H1N1 will come back, and if it does, whether it will be more severe or widespread. The odds are it won't be. But we're going to make sure that the city is fully prepared for whatever happens.
Our first priority is preventing the H1N1 virus from spreading. And the key is for people to take commonsense precautions, like washing their hands regularly and covering their mouths with a sleeve or tissue when they cough.
We also hope to get vaccines for the H1N1 virus from the federal government by October or November. Once we do, we plan to offer them to all public and private school-age children in the city. We'll leave it up to their parents to decide whether children receive the vaccine - which will be a nasal spray for most students - but all of them will have the option if they want it. Vaccines for both H1N1 and seasonal flu will also be available through doctors' offices and clinics, and we will dispatch volunteer "flu fighters" to houses of worship, senior centers and other places to encourage New Yorkers to get vaccinated.
Even if some students do catch the flu, a major goal will be keeping schools open. Shuttering schools will be considered a last resort because it creates major disruptions and forces many parents to miss work and lose income. A lot of kids also lose valuable time in the classroom. That's something we can avoid if everyone follows basic hygiene, and if children who feel sick are kept home by their parents until their symptoms subside.
One of the biggest problems we experienced in the spring is that our emergency rooms were overwhelmed with people who thought they had H1N1 but either didn't need that level of care or didn't in fact have the virus. To reduce this strain, we're designating primary care clinics around the city as "flu centers" that can give New Yorkers flu shots, information, and treatment even if they don't have health insurance. And we are helping hospitals prepare to expand their emergency room facilities so that there are separate areas for people who need care for mild flu symptoms.
As we track the spread of the virus, we are going to relay all critical data to the public. That will, for example, include updates on the number of people coming to emergency rooms with flu-like symptoms, school attendance figures, and the locations for flu clinics. It will all be available at www.nyc.gov/flu, a new web portal for all flu-related information which we'll launch later this month. It's vital that everyone is kept informed because we have a much better chance of containing any outbreak if we work together - and this is New York, so I know we will!