Illnesses and possible flu outbreaks close schools for the week

Several counties throughout Kentucky have closed schools for the remainder of the week due to multiple illnesses “in response to what public health officials are calling a possible flu outbreak among young people,” Austin Ramsey and Bobbie Hayse report for the Messenger-Inquirer in Owensboro. Butler, Ohio and Todd County schools announced their closings Tuesday, just after two- and three-day closures in Muhlenberg and Hancock County, respectively. “Barbourville, Jenkins, and Williamsburg Independent Schools, along with Knox, Clay, and Mercer Counties all closed on Thursday,” WKYT reports.

Jessica Austin, an epidemiologist with the Green River District Health Department, told Ramsey and Hayes that “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 most flu cases, Ramsey and Hayse write. “Persons can protect themselves somewhat with an annual vaccine that the 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.”

Austin says that almost all local health providers confirm influenza using ‘rapid flu tests’– mouth or nasal swabs that 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,” Ramsey and Hayse write.

It’s too early to raise any public health crisis alarms, so Austin “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.

“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,” Ramsey and Hayse write.

Officials in Mercer County told WKYT that the decision to close was a proactive one. “Attendance numbers started to decline throughout the week with many parents saying their children were sick. Many teachers and members of the staff were also ill.

Mercer County school leaders say they will spend the next two days disinfecting each classroom and building,” WKYT writes.

“Everything that kids are coming in contact with. Desks, water fountains, door knobs, light switches, all those things. So all the surfaces that they clean regularly anyway, but this is just a more thorough, deeper cleaning,” Esther Hayslett, the director of pupil personnel, told WKTY.

Disinfecting classrooms isn’t the only solution. Dr. Katrina Hood, a doctor with Pediatric & Adolescent Associates in Lexington, told WKYT: “I think as best we can trying to teach kids during the winter about the triangle in the face; So your eyes, your nose, your mouth, try not to touch those during the day.”

Updated February 10, 2017 at 2:43pm

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