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Grizzly cadets head back to service as flu worries wane 

click to enlarge AT EASE :  A swine flu outbreak drew attention and worry at Grizzly Youth Academy, but leaders say they’re putting it behind them. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • AT EASE : A swine flu outbreak drew attention and worry at Grizzly Youth Academy, but leaders say they’re putting it behind them.

On June 19, every one of the 163 cadets remaining in the 2009 class of the Grizzly Youth Academy is expected to enter the Cal Poly Performing Arts Center, listen as their names are read, and fling their camo hats into 
the air in celebration of their graduation from 
the Camp San Luis Obispo-based military boarding school.

For this class and for the academy’s faculty the event will have even more significance than usual; they’ll be celebrating not only their success in the program—which nearly 70 who began the program did not complete—but also the challenges that came with being the site of one of the nation’s earliest outbreaks of swine flu.

The outbreak came on suddenly. On Sunday night, April 26, an unusual number of cadets were reporting as sick.

“We were like, ‘Hmm’,” said Academy Commandant Fermin Barbosa. The next morning, far more were sick. “It was time to hit the brakes; we knew something was going on.”

Major Mark Johnson was the acting commander at Camp San Luis Obispo when the outbreak occurred. Coincidentally, Johnson had attended a training exercise just weeks before that included planning for the possibility of a disease outbreak. Before long, the National Guard sent medical and staff support. People from the County Department of Public Health came in, along with emergency services workers. Soon there was media attention to deal with.

While the nation has since calmed, in those early days the flu was being discussed as a possible deadly global pandemic, after what seemed to be an unusual number of deaths in Mexico.

The academy cancelled community projects, including plans to assist with the Wildflower Triathlon. Mentoring ceased for two weeks. Presentations, such as one scheduled by the Sexual Assault Recovery and Prevention (SARP) were put on hold. “It was a roller-coaster,” Barbosa said. “At times it hindered our ability to function as an academy.”

Other base workers were told to avoid the cadets if possible. “People certainly had concerns,” Johnson said. “That’s what happens in the absence of information; you have concerns.”

In all, more than 60 cadets were isolated at different times with signs of illness. Now that number is down to zero, although a Santa Maria toddler with connections to the academy was reported as testing positive on May 12. Throughout the ordeal, officials said, only two parents expressed concerns about the swine flu, and none pulled their children from the academy. Applications for the fall session, they said, haven’t waned.

“We had the eyes of the world on the Grizzly Academy for a while,” Barbosa said. “Maybe not in the way I’d have wanted it, but it is what it is.”

Johnson, whose regular duties include acting as base spokesman, said he knew the media would consider it a big story. It was, but he said he was grateful the Grizzly cadets weren’t the first 
U.S. cases, which became the subject of far more intensive attention.

The cadets will soon be emerging from their seclusion. The cadets had community service plans for the May 16-17 weekend, including field work for the Land Conservancy of SLO County. Mentoring efforts were also set to resume.

Barbosa said they felt ready to renew their community service efforts earlier, and had a request to help with a well-baby fair. He said they declined not out of public health concerns but out of concern about how the community might respond.

“We did not feel it would have been a good way to get back into the community,” he said. 

 Even as they looked forward in a recent interview, administrators showed some trepidation. Decisions were still pending, for example, regarding whether to allow cadets to attend SLO Farmers Market—a reward they earn. Another question mark was whether to allow them to return home once more before graduation. Barbosa said he simply wasn’t sure he wanted to take the risk that any more might contract the disease in visits home.

There’s still work to be done before the graduation. The cadets have served 4,527 hours of community service, but would have been closer to 5,000 hours without the interruptions. They’ll have to make those hours up.

Now they have a new problem, Barbosa said. During the change in schedule, discipline slipped. “We’ve never had to deal with that before.”

Plus, there are questions about how the cadets will be perceived after the recent news attention. Officials see nothing but hopeful signs. During a recent hike, people greeted them with signs that read “Go Grizzlies.”

 “It was shocking,” Barbosa said. “That was very surprising, but it was very gratifying.”

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