First major flu outbreak of the season hits University of Michigan; nearly 100 kids in Maryland get wrong dose of COVID vaccine

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Women with protective face masks walk on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, where state health officials have issued a stay-in-place order for undergraduate students.
The CDC is investigating a flu outbreak at the University of Michigan. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

Students are back to class amid the coronavirus pandemic, and to keep you posted on what’s unfolding throughout U.S. schools — K-12 as well as colleges — Yahoo Life is running a weekly wrap-up featuring news bites, interviews and updates on the ever-unfolding situation.

University of Michigan has first major flu outbreak since pandemic began

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is investigating a flu outbreak at the University of Michigan, school officials announced this week. 

"A large and sudden increase in cases of influenza among students on the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor campus will be the focus of federal health experts seeking to learn more about how the flu is spreading and vaccine effectiveness as the nation heads into the flu season," said a Monday news release from the school. 

School officials say that the first flu case on campus was diagnosed on Oct. 6. There have since been 528 cases diagnosed at the school's University Health Service, with 77 percent of cases in people who did not receive their flu vaccine this year. Cases of influenza A (H3N2) have increased rapidly during the past few weeks on campus. 

The cases, which appear to make up the first major outbreak of the 2021-2022 flu season, "[do] raise concerns about what the flu season may bring," Juan Luis Marquez, medical director at the Washtenaw County Health Department, said in a statement.

Last year's flu season barely occurred because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between Oct. 3, 2020, and July 24, 2021, the CDC saw just 2,136 positive flu tests out of 1.3 million specimens tested by clinical laboratories, according to data published in JAMA. During that time, 736 deaths were recorded as influenza. By comparison, the 2019-2020 flu season saw an estimated 35 million flu-related illnesses and 20,000 flu-related deaths, according to CDC data.

Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life that it's "too early to say" if the University of Michigan outbreak is a sign of what's ahead in this flu season. "However, it’s clear that this year's flu season is going to be different than last year’s, which was nonexistent," he adds.

But Dr. Thomas Russo, professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, tells Yahoo Life that the Michigan outbreak "tells us that flu is back." 

"It doesn’t appear that we will get a pass like last year," Russo continues. "This is due to increased travel, social interactions and less use of mitigation measures such as masks. Flu shots are down compared to last year, but this is a mistake. We are risking the 'twindemic' that didn't materialize last year."

Russo urges people to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19. "Flu alone is bad enough; I wouldn’t wish the combination of flu and COVID on anyone," he says. "Please get your flu vaccine ASAP and your COVID vaccine if you haven't already done so. It is not too late."

Nearly 100 students in Maryland received improper doses of COVID-19 vaccine

Some parents who have students in South Lake Elementary School in Gaithersburg, Md., are being urged to revaccinate their children against COVID-19. Public health officials have determined that 98 students at the school were given vaccines that were diluted more than is recommended.

The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services said in a news release on Monday that the affected families have been notified by phone and urged the students to get additional doses as soon as possible. Public health officials were notified after a staffer realized the mistake. Those officials consulted with the Maryland Department of Health and Pfizer, which recommended that the children receive an additional dose.

"We apologize for the error, and we are offering another opportunity for the children to be revaccinated," James Bridgers, acting Montgomery County health officer, said in a statement. "We are confident that this is an isolated situation, and staff have already received additional training on reconstituting and administering pediatric doses."

Staff will also "continue to receive weekly updates on clinical guidance for the administration of vaccine doses to this age group," Bridgers added.

Jamie Alan, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, told Yahoo Life that she "can see how this can happen."

"The vial for the younger patients has an orange cap, and, for older kids, a purple cap," she explains. "You are supposed to add 1.3 milliliters of diluent to the orange cap and 1.8 milliliters to the purple cap vials." (The diluent is 0.9 percent sodium chloride, aka saline, according to the CDC.)

"If you are reading quickly, the numbers '3' and '8' look very close," Alan says.

Alan says that "it's likely" the children had an immune response to the dose of the vaccine they received, "although how robust and whether that will be biologically significant, I cannot say." As for the children getting an extra dose of the vaccine, Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious disease physician and professor of internal medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University, told Yahoo Life that "another dose will not be detrimental."

Rhode Island school switches to remote learning after COVID outbreak linked to homecoming dance

Pilgrim High School in Warwick, R.I., went remote this week after 25 students tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak that is thought to be connected to the school's recent homecoming dance. 

According to the Providence Journal, a video from the homecoming dance, which took place on Nov. 6, showed most students and high school principal Gerald Habershaw without masks. Students were reportedly asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test before attending the dance. 

Habershaw did not return Yahoo Life's request for comment.

Pilgrim High school, which is part of Warwick Public Schools, has a mask mandate in place but no vaccine mandate. Rhode Island law requires that students and staff wear masks in all school district buildings. It's unclear at this point if the school will resume in-person classes next week.

Doctors say dances aren't a risk-free activity right now. "Indoor activities increase the risk for COVID, and poor ventilation further increases that risk," Russo said. "Masks help but are not perfect. Many people are still using low-quality masks, and maintaining a good fit on the dance floor is challenging at best." 

Russo also pointed out that masks will be down when students drink, eat or kiss between dances, making things especially tricky. 

Adalja said that extracurricular school activities like dances can be done more safely if they're restricted to people who are fully vaccinated. Even then, though, it's not perfect. Russo said, "Even if everyone was fully vaccinated, vaccine-induced immunity is waning; a booster is strongly recommended to maximize protection and make a high-risk situation safer." 

Buses in a Maine school district aren't running for the second week in a row due to COVID-19 cases

Maine's Kennebec Intra-District Schools wrapped up their second week of no school buses due to COVID-19 cases among students and staff. 

Superintendent Tonya Arnold tells Yahoo Life that the district did "not [have] enough substitutes to cover for staff who are out," which includes bus drivers. As a result, the district's 1,999 students have been without bus service. Arnold says that staff has tried to help fill the gap in service. 

"Principals have opened the school earlier and stayed late to help with parent pick-up [and] drop-offs to accommodate work schedules, and assisted along with PTO groups to make connections among families for ride-share arrangements," she says. "Thanks to these efforts, attendance rates have continued to be good."

Although school bus service has been out for two weeks, Arnold says that the district "anticipates a return to normal bus service schedules next Monday." Masks are required on school buses and in school buildings in the district. 

Maine is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, with 1,042 new cases reported on Tuesday, marking the largest single-day total since the start of the pandemic, according to the state's CDC

Experts say that school buses can be a safe place for students. "If appropriate mitigation measures are in place, then the risk of riding in a school bus is minimized," Russo says. "These include mandatory masks, optimal ventilation — windows open, weather permitting — and spacing/capacity."  

But, Russo says, it's "equally important" that sick children and staff stay home and get tested. "Not employing these measures will put students at risk, especially when the community burden of disease is high," he adds. 

Half of college students don't know their school's COVID-19 vaccine policy

A new survey of more than 1,000 college students has found that only 49 percent accurately understand their school's COVID-19 vaccination policy. The survey was conducted by the COVID States Project, a collaboration by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern and Rutgers universities. 

The researchers found that about half of all students went to schools with some kind of COVID-19 vaccine mandate. A little more than two-thirds of students said they knew their school's vaccination policy (but only about half actually understood it). 

The researchers said in a press release that they're particularly concerned about unvaccinated students in schools with vaccine mandates that aren't well enforced or don't require students to submit proof of vaccination. 

Doctors agree. "If students don’t know the school's vaccination policy, they may not get vaccinated or realize its importance," Adalja said. But Russo says it's not entirely the students' fault. "Messaging has been imperfect during this pandemic. This is yet another example," he said. "However, I would hope that all students choose to get vaccinated, regardless of the school’s policy."

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