More students sent home from Cape Central High School reporting flu-like symptoms

Friday, February 17, 2012
Central High School lead custodian John Stinson sprays disinfectant on hall locker combination locks Thursday, Feb. 16, 2012. "You're fighting an invisible enemy," he said. (Fred Lynch)

A phone rang in a high school office.

"Cape Central Infirmary," answered Dr. Mike Cowan, high school principal.

The office looked similar to a hospital waiting room at times Wednesday and Thursday as students and staff came through its doors reporting fevers, body aches and coughing.

Attendance at the high school dropped to 65 percent Thursday after 38 more students were sent home with flu-like symptoms. Staff sent 81 students home Wednesday, and the high school began Thursday with a quarter of students and staff absent.

Cowan said because so many students were out, some teachers were reluctant to begin new lessons Thursday. The school staffed three nurses instead of the usual one due to the large number of students coming in with symptoms Wednesday.

Parent-teacher conferences at the high school were canceled Thursday, as was a girl's basketball game because of too many sick players.

"I've never seen anything like it," Cowan said.

Average daily attendance during the first semester at the high school was 95 percent.

District superintendent Dr. Jim Welker said other schools in the district didn't appear to be affected by whatever was going around, because all reported attendance rates of above 90 percent. Sickness had not spread to the Jackson School District, either, said assistant superintendent Dr. Rita Fisher. Attendance there was above 95 percent Thursday morning.

Five days off for the Cape Girardeau School District -- today, the weekend, Monday and Tuesday -- came at just the right time, Welker said.

"In a way it was fortunate for us that it occurred when it did," he said. "Hopefully by Wednesday everyone will be feeling better."

Today is a day off for students for a parent-teacher compensation day for staff. Monday is Presidents Day, and Tuesday is a professional development day. Parent-teacher conferences were rescheduled for Feb. 23.

In the past two days, four of six lab-confirmed cases of influenza Type A in Cape Girardeau County this flu season were reported to the county's public health center, said public health nurse Vanessa Landers. Those cases did not target a particular age group, Landers said.

"It's not uncommon for it to happen all at once," Landers said. "It's a pretty viral bug once it gets started."

Both Landers and Linda Brown, director of emergency services at Southeast Hospital and a nurse practitioner, say anti-viral medications given in the first 24 hours of the onset of flu symptoms -- high fever, cough, body aches and a runny nose -- can help improve how a person feels and lessen the time spent sick. Even with antivirals, people who test positive for the flu should stay home for 24 hours after they no longer have a fever.

"The flu is highly contagious. A person is probably contagious for 24 to 48 hours before symptoms surface," Brown said.

Brown said the strain of influenza that appeared to be moving through the high school this week is one that may have mutated, making it resistant to flu vaccines, which are based on strains of influenza Type A and B from last season.

"The good news is, for the yuck that is out there right now, it's still currently 100 percent covered by anti-viral medications," she said, which means the treatment will still help the body fight off the symptoms caused by the strain.

Southeast Hospital's emergency room treated several people with flu-like symptoms recently, Brown said, but only a few -- one or two a day -- have tested positive for influenza.

Emily Sikes, spokeswoman for Saint Francis Medical Center, said no patients were seen in the emergency room with flu or tested positive for the virus. The hospital's Immediate Convenient Care clinic did see some sick high school-age patients, but none tested positive for flu.

Central sophomore Bailee Bockhorst began to feel sick Tuesday night, said her mother, Amber Bockhorst. Her daughter went to school for an hour Wednesday before deciding home was a better idea.

"She's been down for two days now with a high fever, sore throat, cough and runny nose," Amber Bockhorst said.

They visited a nurse practitioner, where Bailee tested positive for influenza Type A.

Cowan said if today had been a regular school day it could have been called off for all the absences.

A report earlier this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed Missouri was experiencing an increase in the number of influenza cases in the last three weeks. Schools in other areas of the country have called off classes this week due to too many sick students, like in a northern Wisconsin district, where there was an apparent outbreak of whooping cough, and in an eastern Kentucky district, where students are reported to have various symptoms ranging from strep throat to stomach viruses to flu.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

eragan@semissourian.com

388-3627

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1000 S. Silver Springs Road, Cape Girardeau, MO

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