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‘Stomach flu’ forces closing of St. Mary School in Elgin

About 70 197 students St. Mary School Elgreported being sick from stomach flu-like ilness this week officials said prompting

About 70 of the 197 students at St. Mary School in Elgin reported being sick from a stomach flu-like ilness this week, officials said, prompting them to close the school Thursday and Friday. | Dave Gathman/Sun-Times Media

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Updated: April 1, 2014 10:07AM

ELGIN — Students at St. Mary Catholic School are getting time off school this week so they all can get healthy.

Faced with an uptick in absences due to an outbreak of “stomach flu,” Principal Barbara Colandrea said the decision was made to close the school Thursday and Friday. Students already were scheduled to have a half-day on Friday for a teacher in-service day, so the school’s 197 students only are missing a day and a half of school.

Officials estimated that about 70 students reported being sick.

The east-side school, at 103 S. Gifford St., will get extra cleaning while closed, with the custodial staff taking extra care of doorknobs, handles and fixtures that children often touch.

“This is giving the school the chance to break the cycle,” Colandrea said. “Our children’s safety is the utmost priority.”

A letter to school families sent Wednesday afternoon asks students and staff to “disinfect keyboards, doorknobs, books, pens/pencils and the like to ensure your family’s health.”

“Our cleaning service will go in and turn the school upside down hoping to annihilate any remaining nasty germs,” the letter said.

In addition to closing school, St. Mary Church canceled its religious education programs scheduled Sunday. Lauren Jazwiec, administrative assistant for religious education and youth ministry, said that because so many activities occur at the school after hours, church leaders opted to forgo all activities, including religious education.

What’s norovirus?

The stomach flu is not actually flu, which is a respiratory condition that affects the nose, throat and lungs. What most people refer to as the stomach flu is really a norovirus, a group of viruses that affect the intestinal tract, according to health experts.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Bob Tiballi of Germ Busters in Elgin said the norovirus is highly contagious and an explosive phenomenon.

One case of the norovirus can quickly spread into an outbreak at a school, nursing home or hospital. Symptoms usually occur a day or two after exposure.

The virus is characterized by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, body aches, headache, tiredness and low-grade fever. Symptoms typically last three to six days, Tiballi said.

Tiballi said the virus is present in the feces of infected persons and is transmitted to others when hands are not thoroughly washed after having a bowel movement. He said people often contract the virus by touching handrails and doorknobs, and then touching their mouth or food.

“People don’t realize how many times they touch their mouth during the day,” Tiballi said.

The doctor said particularly troublesome is a new strain of the norovirus that was found recently on a cruise ship. While people can build up immunity after getting many of the norovirus strains, Tiballi said there is no protection from the new strain.

Who is at risk?

Children are at risk from the norovirus because they can easily become dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea.

Tiballi said parents should force fluids as much as possible.

“If a child stops urinating or is no longer producing tears when he or she cries, the child should be seen immediately by a doctor or at an emergency room,” he said.

Children age 2 and younger are extremely vulnerable to dehydration and can die from the condition, Tiballi said.

The best prevention is washing hands and keeping children home from school when they are sick, Tiballi said. In a case of an outbreak at a place such as a school, Tiballi suggests stopping school for a few days to break the cycle. Antimicrobial wipes applied to doorknobs and other high-traffic areas also is good, he said.

Colandrea said that teachers have made a special effort to remind students of the importance of hand-washing and not spreading germs.

So far, St. Edward Catholic High School in Elgin has not seen any surge in the number of student absences, according to the school’s superintendent, the Rev. David Finn. He added that the custodial staff will continue its normal daily cleaning.

Kane County Health Department spokesman Tom Schlueter said the department received word Wednesday that St. Mary would close. The school had a similar outbreak in November 2002, according to news reports at the time.

No other schools in Kane County have reported closing due to illness so far this season, Schlueter said.

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