The swine flu virus on Thursday may have claimed a 19-year-old day care worker at a charter school in Modesto, officials said.
Great Valley Academy, an elementary school at 3200 Tully Road, remained open, though some worried parents took children away early and administrators sent home about a dozen others with flulike symptoms.
Because the 520-pupil school has not seen unusual absentee rates, it will continue running as normal, and probably would not shut even if testing proves that the H1N1 virus killed the young woman, officials said.
In related news, the state's public health director says the virus could sicken as many as one in four Californians this year.
As of Tuesday, the virus had sent nearly 8,000 to hospitals in the United States and killed 522, including 128 in California.
Federal health officials say the highest rate of infection has occurred in people 5 to 24 years old. Seasonal flu usually is more deadly to young and elderly patients.
Sickness caused Amanda DeLaRosa of Modesto to miss some work last week, the first of the school year, said Eldon Rosenow, founder of Great Valley Academy. DeLaRosa was the daughter of a school secretary and worked in the school's before- and after-school child care.
She was still ill Monday and went home after only a few minutes, Principal Cy Cole said. DeLaRosa died Thursday at Doctors Medical Center of an unknown cause, Stanislaus County Deputy Coroner Elizabeth Hawthorne said.
"She was a sweet gal doing her best job," Cole said. He sent a letter to parents expressing sympathy, citing "speculation that she may have had H1N1 flu" and asking families to review safety and hygiene guidelines.
Dr. John Walker, the county's public health officer, said Stanislaus County is experiencing an H1N1 pandemic and his office presumes the dangerous virus is at fault whenever a school reports sickness problems.
But closing campuses no longer is recommended by state and federal health officers as a blanket reaction to each outbreak, and no school in Stanislaus County has shut its doors. All would consult with Walker's office and make decisions on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Parent Shannon McDonough of Modesto fetched her children Thursday from Great Valley Academy after receiving a modbee.com alert about a swine flu investigation at the school. The Bee's notice was issued before authorities confirmed DeLaRosa's death.
McDonough's 5-year-old son is enrolled in the after-school service, she said, as she also buckled her 7-year-old daughter into a child safety seat. Both were sick last week for two or three days with flulike symptoms, she said.
Parents trust Great Valley
"Anytime there is misinformation and rumors, parents are going to be cautious," Rosenow said,
Other parents had heard gossip but were not alarmed.
"I completely trust Great Valley Academy," said Francesca Orr. "They're very responsive and I know they're on it. They always put our children first. The No. 1 goal is a safe and loving and learning environment."
Susan Wood said she was "absolutely not concerned" and placed full confidence in Cole.
Stanislaus County Office of Education officials emerged from the school office just before school let out, saying they had participated in a conference call with Walker.
"The recommendation is that the school stay open," county Superintendent of Schools Tom Changnon said after reviewing attendance records.
Pupils with runny noses or coughs were isolated Thursday until parents retrieved them, Cole and Rosenow said. A classroom aide watching the children wore a face mask for a couple of hours, Rosenow said.
Other symptoms can include fever, sore throat, body aches, chills, fatigue, diarrhea and vomiting.
Walker said his office presumes the H1N1 virus is to blame when schools report flulike symptoms because 98 percent of tests are coming back positive for the virus.
"This is a pandemic," Walker said. "It's been in our county since July, with 40 hospitalizations and several deaths. The big question today is, do you need to close a school?"
His office scrutinizes attendance data from all schools in Stanislaus County and has not seen alarming spikes, Walker said.
"We do have an epidemic but it appears to be ambulatory, like we have every winter with influenza," Walker said. "Ninety percent of my time the past two months has been dedicated to how best to mitigate this outbreak, so yes, it's here."
Swab and blood tests sent to an outside laboratory would tell if DeLaRosa had the virus, Hawthorne said, but she declined to speculate on when results might be returned. An autopsy should be performed in a day or two, she said.
"We don't want to give out premature information because we don't want to cause a panic," Hawthorne said.
Cole said he missed school Wednesday because of "health issues" not related to swine flu.
Early Thursday afternoon, Cole concealed DeLaRosa's death when The Bee called. He later said he did not want to go astray of privacy protocol.
"My concern is that this would be overblown into something more than it is," Cole said.
His letter to parents, dated Thursday, opens with news of the death without naming the woman. He assures families that the school disinfects "surface areas and materials regularly" and instructs teachers and students in appropriate hygiene.
A letter to Californians from Dr. Mark Horton, state public health director, says that "parents must plan to care for their ill children at home and for potential school closures."
The letter, released Thursday, says H1N1 "has the potential to sicken millions of people in our state in the months ahead; as many as 1 in 4 Californians may be affected."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.