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Flu-haunted St. George turns into ghost town

Tonight could be the spookiest Halloween in the 225-year history of St. George, N.B.

The spectre that stalks its tree-lined streets will keep teenagers indoors, set loose a flurry of small-town gossip and prompt the town to close public places.

"Quite frankly, I'm worried about the whole thing," said Lynn Farmakoulas, principal of Fundy High, the local secondary school. "I can see stores shutting down, restaurants closing."

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She should know.

That scourge - the H1N1 virus - prompted officials to close Fundy yesterday after a quarter of its teachers and half its students stayed home with the flu. Four other schools in the area were also closed. And now, on a weekend usually reserved for exchanges of sugar and fright, much of the region will hunker indoors until the virus passes.

"My son was told not to trick-or-treat by the doctor," said April Lomax.

Her 14-year-old attends Fundy High. "It's shaping up to be a quiet Halloween."

Like hundreds of others in the 1,300-person town, Ms. Lomax's son came down with the flu early this week. By Thursday, Fundy High was deserted, with 340 of 640 students absent. Also among the missing were 11 of 42 teachers, two of six custodians, four bus drivers and half the teaching assistants.

"If we had been open today, we would have had to double and triple class sizes," Ms. Farmakoulas said. "It wasn't something we had ever planned for. We discussed what would happen if staff presented as ill, but we never went further and asked what would happen if a quarter of the staff was out."

The breadth of the infection prompted the closing of the local arena this weekend, and residents adopted a new suspicion of one another.

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"I didn't want anyone here to know about my son," Ms. Lomax said. "They act like it's the plague."

Fundy High is expected to reopen on Wednesday, unless more staff fall ill over the weekend.

The story was similar on the opposite coast. In the remote town of Kitimat, B.C., school officials closed Mount Elizabeth Secondary School when the absentee rate reached 40 per cent on Thursday.

"What we're trying to do is interrupt the cycle of transmission," said Rob Greenwood, superintendent of Coast Mountains School District. "We have asked staff and students to self-isolate, to stay away from malls and places like that."

Mr. Greenwood said the closing was unprecedented.

"We've closed schools due to snow, yes, but not flu. I don't recall seeing absenteeism at this rate ever in my career."

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During the earlier flu outbreak this spring, a number of schools across the country closed, a precautionary measure that was later labelled excessive in light of the mild nature of the virus. Several provincial chief medical health officers, along with the World Health Organization, have been critical of closings as a flu-fighting measure.

But in St. George, the five affected schools simply couldn't open their doors with so many sick staff, Ms. Farmakoulas said.

And the same may go for the rest of the country in coming weeks.

"The school is a mirror of the wider community," she said. "If it's impacting us this way, what happens when it spreads through government and businesses? It's a bit scary, really."

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About the Author
National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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