Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Feb. 8, 2017
Flu outbreak likely behind area school closures
Officials say February marks spike in numbers
By Austin Ramsey and Bobbie Hayse
Another area school district is closing its doors this week in response to what public health officials are calling a possible flu outbreak among young people.
Ohio County School officials announced Tuesday that classes will be out for the rest of the week. The announcement follows two- and three-day closures in Muhlenberg County and Hancock County schools, respectively, within a short, six-day window.
Jessica Austin, an epidemiologist with the Green River District Health Department, says tests in Ohio County seem to be pointing to seasonal influenza, a contagious respiratory illness caused by a group of related viruses that can be of real concern to high-risk populations such as the elderly or young.
February is typically the height of the flu season. Persons can protect themselves somewhat with an annual vaccine that U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports indicate is a good match for common strains seen in patients this year. Austin said it remains unclear whether patients treated for influenza in the region received vaccines within the last six months.
What is certain, she said, is that almost all local health providers confirm influenza using what is called a rapid flu test. The mouth or nasal swab can yield results within 15 minutes, but CDC officials warn that the quick tests often produce false-positive results and that their sensitivity hovers somewhere between 50-70 percent. For that reason, the CDC does not accept rapid test results for regional, state or national flu outlooks.
Austin said she is now calling on all local hospitals and clinics in the seven-county region to send test samples to the Kentucky Department for Public Health for more accurate results.
"That's the only way we're going to tell if this really is influenza, what kind it is and how widespread the problem really is," she said. "It's too early to tell any of that now."
She said it may be too early to raise any public health crisis alarms, because information is too scattered. Still, in her tenure at the health department, she said she's never seen so many school districts close in such a short period of time. Although a large number of cases are among young people, anyone 6 months old or older should consider a flu shot, she said. Individuals should frequently wash their hands with soap and water and stay away from public places within 24 hours of running a fever or displaying any gastrointestinal symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea.
"This is new," she said. "But people shouldn't be too alarmed. There are steps you can take to stay healthy."
Dr. Alben Shockley, of One Health Urgent Care Ford, said he is treating anywhere between 20 and 25 cases of influenza per day -- a typical high during the average three-week season peak.
"This is what we expect this time of the year," he said. "If people are showing the symptoms like sudden fever, chills, dry cough and body aches, they should seek medical attention as soon as possible."
For individuals who test positive within the first 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, an antiviral like Tamiflu may significantly reduce symptoms, he added.
But officials with One Health Infectious Disease, which is monitoring flu cases at Owensboro Health facilities in all of western Kentucky and southern Indiana, said there were 113 confirmed cases of flu in the region in January and already 69 in the first seven days of February, representing what one official called a "significant jump" in a short period of time.
At Ohio County Schools, Seth Southard, the district's assistant superintendent, said attendance bottomed out to an average of 81 percent by Tuesday.
Southard, who has been in his position for nine years, said that he has never seen attendance numbers this low.
Monday attendance was at 90 percent, but by Tuesday some of the schools had a low of slightly more than 70 percent, he said.
He said that strep throat has been “running very rampant throughout the district,” but that there are also cases of the flu and a stomach virus as well.
“Sometimes sick kids come to school because they don't want to be absent,” he said. “We just felt that it was in the best interest of the district to call off the rest of the week, and hopefully let students and staff be healthy once again, and we can start fresh on Monday.”
Muhlenberg County Schools Superintendent Randy McCarty said that on Friday there were 680 students absent due to illness, and when attendance dropped to 86 percent, district officials decided it was time to close to allow the sicknesses to run their course.
“The kids are sick, staff members are sick, and some staff members have sick kids they have to tend to at home,” he said. “There are a lot of flu symptoms and the stomach viruses. It's just been a mess, this stuff.”
The district was closed Monday and Tuesday and will remain closed Wednesday, Feb. 8.
Hancock County Schools were closed Thursday and Friday of last week when attendance got as low at 88 percent district-wide, according to Superintendent Kyle Estes.
The numbers on Tuesday were up from last week, reaching above 90 percent, he said.
“Our average is 95 percent this time of year, and we are hoping we will get right up there by the end of the week,” he said.
Staff numbers also hit a low last week, he said, as instructors were either out sick or home with sick children.
The district has been seeing a lot of cases of confirmed flu, strep throat and the stomach bug, he said.
“We are continuing to encourage students to wash hands and do all those necessary things to remain healthy,” he said.
Lora Wimsatt, the Daviess County Public Schools public information officer, said on Tuesday that the district's attendance at the end of the school day was 93.77 percent. The lowest attendance at a school in the district was 91.42 percent. Overall, she said these numbers are a low for the district that typically has about 97 or 98 percent attendance this time of year.
She said the district is seeing a lot of strep throat, a stomach virus and the flu.
“Our district health professionals are monitoring this closely,” she said. “They are in communication with one another, and in communication with personnel at the health department.”
She said that school maintenance teams are always “especially diligent this time of year,” making sure that they are sanitizing and paying particular attention to areas that are commonly touched.
Dave Kirk, the Owensboro Public Schools public information officer, said that the district usually is at a 95 percent attendance rate this time of year. As of Tuesday, they were looking at 92.32 percent district-wide.
He said that the school with the lowest attendance had a rate of 84 percent.
“School nurses are taking precautions, and we are encouraging students to make sure they are washing their hands,” he said.
The school is predominantly seeing students sick with a stomach bug and the flu, he said.
McLean County Public Schools had on Tuesday an attendance rate of 90.89 percent, according to Superintendent Terry Hayes.
He said right now the district is keeping a close eye on attendance, given the attendance rates for all of the districts in the area.
This time last year, McLean County Schools had a 95 percent attendance rate.
The district has been seeing a lot of strep throat and flu cases, he said.
“If numbers start decreasing for two or more days, we will make a decision just like the other (districts),” he said.