Stomach bug hits hard at HES

By Gail Geraghty

Staff Writer

HARRISON — Over 10 percent of students and staff have been sickened at Harrison Elementary School by an unusually fast-moving stomach flu bug, triggering an intervention by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

The “throw-up” bug, a likely strain of norovirus, hit in full force on Friday, when three students called in sick and 15 were sent home by School Nurse Vicky VanLoan — who got sick herself over the weekend and was out of work on Monday, said SAD 17 Supt. Rick Colpitts.

By Monday, 13 students of the 200-student school called in sick and another four were sent home. The CDC implemented strict sanitary disinfectant measures to minimize the spread, and by Tuesday, seven students were out sick and one was sent home, Colpitts said. He said the CDC was not recommending closing the school.

School staff were also affected, Colpitts said; one teacher went home sick Friday, five staff were sick over the weekend, and three staff members were still out sick as of Tuesday.

Orders for frequent hand-washings, non-sharing of cell phones, and repeated disinfecting by custodial staff of doors, knobs, keyboard and other contact surfaces in the school appear to be paying off, however, he added.

“Everybody is slowly getting back to normal,” said Colpitts, who couldn’t recall in his experience any other incident in a school where a flu virus was so rapidly spread from person to person. He said the symptoms were nausea and vomiting, but it was still uncertain whether the virus was airborne or spread through physical contact.

Those who have been affected by the virus feel very sick initially, but typically have recovered within 48 hours, he said.

“Sometimes you just have to let it run its course,” he said. “It’s similar to what you might find on a cruise ship, when you have a lot of people in a small space.”

The district has an infectious disease policy that outlines cleaning procedures and requires CDC reporting if more than 10% of a school’s population is affected. School Principal Margaret Emery is encouraging parents of all students to keep their child at home if the child complains of a stomach ache, to minimize contact with others.

The policy also requires the thorough cleaning of an area within six feet from any site of vomiting. District Facilities Director David Marshall briefed the school’s head custodian, Rob Saunders, on the cleaning procedures on Monday afternoon.

Colpitts said no other SAD 17 school has reported a similar stomach virus. Principals Cheryl Turpin at Stevens Brook Elementary School, and June Conley at Songo Locks School, said there have been no cases of stomach flu at their schools.

Bridgton Hospital spokesperson Pam Smith, however, confirmed that “we have indeed had an increase in patients with stomach viruses” coming through the emergency room and seeing their doctors at Bridgton Hospital Physician Group practices. Statewide, she added, the Maine CDC is reporting a “slight increase in GI ailments and fever.”

Colpitts said elementary schools in West Paris and Oxford have had a run of flu virus, but not of the stomach bug variety.

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