Concerns over the possibility of a local H1N1 flu outbreak have city and school officials monitoring illnesses within their ranks.

Concerns over the possibility of a local H1N1 flu outbreak have city and school officials monitoring illnesses within their ranks.

"We've been keeping an eye just because of everything that's been going on," said Mark Hershiser, Westerville City Schools' chief of community relations. "If the numbers (of absences) get up too high, we'll monitor that."

If a cluster of flu sufferers are identified, the city or the county would move to address that.

In the school district, a task force has been put together to monitor cases of the flu and look at ways to deal with any situations that arise from the threat of a flu outbreak.

The city has formed backup plans based on the "worst-case scenario" that 50 percent of the staff would be unable to report to work, said Fire Chief Bernie Ingles, who oversees the city's flu plan.

Plans involve reallocating necessary tasks, such as paying the city's bills, allowing city employees to work from home where possible and potentially closing some government facilities.

"Every department will do something similar along those lines," Ingles said.

Within the division of fire, where first-responders are most vulnerable because they deal with the sick on a regular basis, plans have been made to give ill employees a place to stay in order to prevent taking the flu home, Ingles said.

Similar plans could be made for other city workers, he said, especially if low staffing levels resulting from illness requires the division to close a fire station. With bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms, a fire station would offer an ideal setting for employees who are unable to stay at home, he said.

If a public outbreak is identified, it could cause the city to close facilities such as the Community Center, Ingles said.

Both the school district and the city are depending on prevention efforts to help protect them from any flu outbreaks.

"The best way to prevent the flu is what they tell you -- wash your hands; cough into your elbow, not your hands; stay away from people you know are sick," Ingles said. "It's just simple precautions like that."

The city's department heads are looking at the best way to communicate those simple principles to staff members. The school district is spreading the word among students and staff and has posted information about the flu on its Web site, www.westerville.k12.oh.us.

The district also is telling students and employees who fall sick with flu symptoms to stay home until their fevers have broken.

"We're asking students and staff to stay calm if they get symptoms and to stay home until they're fever-free (below 100 degrees) for 24 hours," said Marianne Troutman, a registered nurse with the district.

In case of a major flu event, reaction will depend on direction from higher up.

If the state declares an emergency, Ingles said he would be Westerville's liaison to the health department in dealing with an outbreak.

The school district, too, has joined the county's task force on influenza to monitor the flu, see how it spreads and to learn how to best react, Hershiser said.

Being connected to agencies such as the health department and the Centers for Disease Control that monitor the spread of influenza will be key going into flu season, Ingles said, because it will allow the city and the school district to be aware of any outbreak that is spreading toward central Ohio.

"The biggest thing is watching the news. If it spreads, it's not going to start in Ohio," Ingles said. "We'll have some warning and be able to step up our preventative measures."

jnesbitt@thisweeknews.com