NEW YORK – A school assistant principal became the city's first death linked to swine flu, and the number of cases in Japan surged to more than 120 on a wave of new confirmations, prompting government-ordered school closures and cancellations of public events.
Mitchell Wiener, 55, died Sunday evening, Flushing Hospital Medical Center spokesman Andrew Rubin said. He had been sick with the virus for nearly a week before the Queens intermediate school where he worked was closed on Thursday.
A makeshift memorial has been erected outside a New York City school for the assistant principal who was the city's first swine flu death.
A hospital spokesman says medical complications likely played a part in Wiener's death. But Wiener's family says the only pre-existing medical problem he had was gout
In Japan, at least 121 people — most of them teenagers — have tested positive for the virus, health officials in the hardest hit areas said Monday. All were recovering in local hospitals or their homes.
Chile also confirmed its first two swine flu cases Sunday in two women who arrived on a flight from the Dominican Republic. The women, ages 25 and 32, are hospitalized and in good condition, Health Minister Alvaro Erazo said.
The swine flu epidemic is already expected to dominate the World Health Organization's five-day annual meeting, which begins Monday in Geneva and involves health officials from the agency's 193 member states. Officials will examine transmission rates and hear experts' recommendations on producing a swine flu vaccine.
As of Sunday, the virus has sickened at least 8,480 people in 40 countries, killing 75 of them, mostly in Mexico.
Complications besides the virus likely played a part in the death of Weiner, who had been hospitalized and on a ventilator, Rubin said. It was the sixth swine-flu related death in the U.S.; officials have also reported three in Texas, one in Washington state and one in Arizona.
Wiener had taught in New York City for decades, starting as a substitute teacher in 1978. Since 2007, he had been an assistant principal at I.S. 238, also known as the Susan B. Anthony Intermediate School, in the Hollis neighborhood.
"He was a well-liked and devoted educator," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.
No one else in the city has become seriously ill from the virus.
Most people sickened from the swine flu, or H1N1 virus, have complained of mild, seasonal flu-like symptoms such as fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and fatigue.
The city's first swine flu outbreak occurred three weeks ago, when about 700 students and 300 other people associated with a Catholic high school in Queens began falling ill following the return of several students from vacations in Mexico, the epicenter of the outbreak. The school was closed.
City health officials announced Sunday that four Queens public schools and one Catholic school would close for up to five school days. Three of the public schools are in the same building in Flushing. Each school had students with flu-like illness last week.
The latest school closings will affect nearly 3,000 students and bring the total number of closures to 11. Schools will be providing curriculum material online, and parents will be able to pick up materials at schools and other locations, schools Chancellor Joel Klein said.
There were no documented swine flu cases at any of the schools, said Jessica Scaperotti, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
The health department said it is monitoring unusual clusters of flu cases as it works to stop the spread of the virus. Officials hope the school closures will help slow the spread of the virus "within the individual school communities," Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden said in a statement.
Frieden was named Friday by President Barack Obama to head the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, where he will be faced with some immediate decisions on how to deal with the nation's outbreak, including whether to produce a vaccine. He'll begin at the CDC in June.
The school where the virus was first reported in the city, St. Francis Preparatory, has been cleaned and reopened, and many New Yorkers had assumed before the latest flurry of school closings that the danger of swine flu was subsiding.
But Dr. Scott Harper, a health department epidemiologist, said health officials weren't surprised by the continued presence of the virus.
"It's so unpredictable," Harper said.
As of the weekend, there were 178 confirmed swine flu cases in New York City, Harper said, but the number of actual cases is believed to be much higher.
Health officials urged people with underlying health conditions to see their doctors if they believe they may have been exposed to swine flu. That includes people with diabetes, people whose immune systems are compromised because of certain cancer medications, pregnant women, elderly people and infants.