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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 22, 2004

Flu epidemic shuts down Waiawa prison

By Peter Boylan
Advertiser Staff Writer

The largest influenza epidemic to hit a state prison in the past five years has spread through about 50 inmates at the Waiawa Correctional Facility, forcing state health and corrections officials to cancel visiting hours and penitentiary programs.

Inmates at the 332-person, minimum security prison began complaining of flu-like symptoms March 11, said Amalia Bueno, assistant to the corrections deputy.

Dr. Kay Bauman, medical director for the Department of Corrections, said Waiawa officials haven't been able to keep an exact count of ailing inmates because the facility's nurses have been stretched thin responding to calls. She estimated the number of flu-stricken inmates to be between 50 and 60.

Bauman said the prison's confined conditions make it easy for the flu, or any other infection, to spread.

She said the flu shot that is offered to most inmates annually is not working to combat this particular strain of influenza.

"It (the flu shot) is not doing a good job protecting people," Bauman said.

Bueno and Bauman said prisoners are being treated conservatively with Tylenol, fluids and lots of rest.

All work, treatment and educational programs at the facility have been suspended to contain the spread of the illness. Prisoners who shuttle regularly between Waiawa and other correctional facilities on O'ahu have had their transfers temporarily suspended, officials said.

Visiting hours were canceled this weekend because corrections officials were concerned about prisoners passing the flu on to their children or pregnant wives.

Bauman said the prison was not in a quarantine situation and that flu patients have not been isolated from the general population because influenza is most contagious the day before someone knows he has it.

Bueno said the prison is working with the Department of Health to monitor the situation.

"They're in close quarters. Everyone eats together, they sleep in dormitories, that's the way germs spread," Bueno said. "We're asking people to wash their hands."

Bueno said more than 90 inmates complained of flu-like symptoms, but not all were diagnosed with the virus. Some inmates simply had colds, she said.

Bueno, who has been with the department for five years, says she has seen "nothing like this."

Bauman said she expects the prison's programs to be up and running by the middle of the week, with visiting hours resuming on the weekend.

She said the number of new cases being reported since the initial outbreak is down.

"I think we're entering the down phase of this little epidemic," she said.

Reach Peter Boylan at 535-8110 or pboylan@honoluluadvertiser.com.