In the past two weeks, four local schools have temporarily closed, largely due to influenza making its way through Hillsdale County.
Hillsdale Hospital Infection Control Officer Randy Holland said since September 2019 there have been 520 cases of influenza B confirmed through the hospital’s laboratory, and 12 cases of influenza A. Holland said the number of confirmed influenza cases in Hillsdale County is probably much higher, as a majority of people will get tested at their local physician’s office, not the hospital.
“Influenza B has been the main strain that has gone on so far this season, which is opposite of how the season typically goes,” Holland said. “Usually, the season goes from the A strain to the B strain.”
Holland said the reason that the B strain is more prevalent this season is because it is the same strain that showed up at the end of last year, meaning that the current strain was not part of the vaccine administered for this season.
Younger children are more susceptible to the B strain, and they often pass the virus on to their parents, according to Holland. He added that once one child is infected, the virus spreads quickly through schools, because children do not often practice good hygiene.
“The schools have done very well making the decision to close, therefore keeping the ill children away from others who may not have it to help rid the environment of illness and then getting the opportunity to sanitize the building,” Holland said. “The schools’ decisions to close have kept numbers lower than if they had not closed.”
Hillsdale College Associate Professor of Biology Silas Johnson said flu season typically peaks through January or February and tapers off in March or April.
“Sometimes that peak is like a little bit earlier and sometimes a little bit later, but it’s generally in the winter months,” Johnson said. “We’re probably close to or around the peak.”
Johnson added that peak season typically occurs in the winter months because more individuals are in close contact with one another.
“They’re just more likely to get a transmission event when you do have that closer contact,” Johnson said.
Johnson added that he’s noticed an increase in Hillsdale College students missing class due to illness.
Linda Snoes, staff assistant for health services at Hillsdale College, said there have been about 40 confirmed influenza cases among college students.
“Most of them have been influenza B,” Snoes said.
Among local school districts, North Adams-Jerome Public Schools closed on Jan. 31 and Feb. 3 – 5 due to more than 75% of the student population calling in sick due to flu-like symptoms.
Wes Johnson, the superintendent and principal of North Adams-Jerome, said the total student body population is 309, and 5 – 10% of students had stayed home in the days leading up to closing.
“Elementary definitely had the most illnesses, with first grade having the highest number of students ill,” Johnson said in an email.
Johnson added that there is no state law requiring schools to close if a certain percentage of students are absent, but “if more than 25% of your students are absent, you cannot count the day, and must either use one of your Act of God days, or make up the day on a non-scheduled school day.”
Although this has been an “unfortunate situation,” Johnson said he hopes the school can resume class today, Feb. 6.
Will Carleton Academy was among the first schools to close due to illness, cancelling classes on Jan. 23 and 24, and continues to tell parents to keep students home until they are fever-free for 24 hours.
According to Carla Stewart, administrative assistant at Will Carleton Academy, there were 30 students who missed school due to illness on Tuesday, Jan. 21, followed by 30 on Wednesday, Jan. 22. She said the administration decided to cancel classes due to the increase in sick children.
“Our numbers got high enough that we felt it was prudent to let everyone stay home and heal, stop spreading the germs,” Stewart said. “And it did help. There is still illness out there, but our numbers are not dangerously high.”
Will Carleton has a total student population of 282 students, and Stewart said every grade level was impacted by the illness. She added that the eighth grade and second grade classes seemed to have the highest number of students with illness.
The administration at Hillsdale Preparatory School also chose to cancel classes on Jan. 23 and 24 due to illness, according to Administrative Assistant Melody Henthorne. With a student population of 98, more than one-third of students missed school on Wednesday, Jan. 22.
“When we get into the 30 to 35 mark, that’s a large number for us; we’re pretty small,” Henthorne said. “We were affected really school-wide. Our fourth grade was hit the hardest. But we did have confirmed influenza A and B cases from every grade.”
Prior to closing on Wednesday, Henthorne said students were sent home with informative flyers from the health department about flu symptoms and treatment options.
“I would say we’re back to good standing,” Henthorne said. “On Monday, we had eight or nine kids out, but those numbers are typical for flu season.”
Henthorne added that the staff is working hard to keep things clean and encouraging parents to sanitize their student’s belongings.
“Our custodian works really hard,” Henthorne said. “She was here all day on both days we were closed, cleaning everything. And we’re advising parents to clean things they wouldn’t normally think about like backpacks, folders, and other school supplies.”
Mike Corey, the superintendent and principal of Litchfield Community Schools, said the district was closed Jan. 28, 29, and 30. With a total student population of 306, Corey said 21% of students called off sick the Monday before closing. He added that many teachers were ill or not feeling well in the days leading up to closing.
“Many teachers didn’t feel well and came to work anyway because we knew we didn’t have enough substitute teachers,” Corey said.
Although many students are still calling off due to illness, Corey said the numbers are moving closer to what he would expect for the flu season. He said the custodian crew has spent more time cleaning all of the things students touch throughout the day in an effort to keep everything sanitized. The teachers are also working very hard to get students caught up with any missed material.
“There’s a lot of effort being put in right now to help kids who got behind,” Corey said.
Gier Elementary Secretary Janet Lum said influenza impacted both students and staff members.
“It’s hard to get substitutes sometimes,” Lum said.
She said Gier has a total student population of 485, and the greatest number of students who missed school due to illness in one day was 58.
“It was a combination of different illnesses,” Lum said. “They didn’t all have the flu.”
While students seem to be experiencing several different illnesses, “influenza B viruses are the most commonly reported influenza among children and young adults age 0 – 4 (58% of reported viruses) and 5 – 24 years (72% of reported viruses),” according to a Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Johnson said it’s difficult for virologists to get good data for vaccine-effectiveness until after the flu season ends. The greater genetic similarities the vaccine strain has to the circulating strain, the more likely people will who received the vaccine will be protected.
Johnson said that the strain in this season’s vaccine is close to being 100% identical with one A strain, but is only 30% identical to another A strain.
“It’s likely that as you decrease that percentage, then the effectiveness of the vaccine will decrease. But we won’t know that for sure until after the season.”
Johnson added that he hears many misconceptions about the flu vaccines, but the virus is less likely to spread among large numbers of people if more people get the vaccine.
“Common things that I hear quite a bit are: ‘Oh I got the flu vaccine one year, and I got the flu immediately after it, so I’ll never get to get flu vaccine again,’ or things like: ‘Oh the flu vaccine, they never pick the right strains, it’s only 30% effective or some low percentage, so I shouldn’t get the flu vaccine,’” Johnson said. “And that’s concerning because the flu vaccine, even if it doesn’t confer 100% effective immunity, just based on the sheer numbers of individuals who will come down with the flu — we’re talking millions of Americans come down with the flu every season — there’ll be hundreds of thousands of hospitalizations, and typically tens of thousands of deaths. When more people get the vaccine, it will help reduce those numbers, and the data shows that.”
According to the CDC, there have been 8,633 laboratory-confirmed influenza-associated hospitalizations reported by sites between Oct. 1, 2019, and Jan. 25, 2020.