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Dual viruses affect students

By By BILL SANDIFER
Special to the Daily News
It's been a tough winter. If the weather didn't get you down then illness probably did.
And it's not over yet.
Schools across a four-county area are reporting large numbers of students absent because of illness.
"We've had quite a few kids out with the flu," said Pam Daw, special assistant to the superintendent in the Beaufort County Schools.
"The absentee rates at Bath Elementary were particularly high last week," said Daw. "Bath seemed to be the school that was affected the most," based on figures she had received from the county's elementary schools.
The week of Feb. 10, she said, Bath had about a 12-percent absentee rate, compared to between 2 and 5 percent on any other given day. However, more students who actually arrived for school later went home sick, Daw said.
John Cotten Tayloe School reported a 92.5-percent attendance rate this week, Daw said, while a normal level is a little over 95 percent.
At Snowden Elementary in Aurora, Principal Dennis Sawyer reported 93-percent attendance, compared to a 95-percent average for January.
Daw said the school system also has been dealing with teachers taking sick leave, either because of personal illness or illness in their children.
"It's just been a variety of things," Daw said of student sickness, running the gamut from stomach virus to strep throat.
A couple of different viruses – stomach and respiratory – explained Daw, have affected students.
"The ones we've sent home … had cold, flu-like symptoms," said Daw. The onset of symptoms appeared to be rapid. "After they got here, they got sick," she said.
Although many students have had flu-like symptoms, Dr. David Lewis of Washington Family Medicine Center said, "We haven't seen much flu at all."
People – adults and children – have been coming to his practice with basically two types of problems. The first is a type of viral gastroenteritis involving nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. That's "a very common problem right now," Lewis said, with people being inside "and in close contact."
The second is an upper respiratory virus. Such viruses, he said, "are spread very easily through sneezing and coughing."
The upper respiratory virus, Lewis pointed out, can frequently lead to ear infections, sinus infections and strep throat in children.
Regarding the flu itself, he added, "Frankly, knock on wood … we've seen very little real flu."
He pointed out the primary, distinguishing factors with flu are really high fever, and body and joint aches – unlike what people are experiencing with the respiratory virus.
"It's really been crazy since last month," he said of the number of patients his practice has been seeing.
Lewis feels that the spread of these illnesses this winter can be attributed in large part to the fact that people have been staying inside so much more. It's "a lot to do with the fact that it's been a very cold winter."
People don't catch viruses from going out in cold weather, he pointed out. "You actually catch all these things from other people."
Lewis estimated Washington Family Medicine Center is seeing about 30 percent more people than usual – adults and children.
In Martin County, the situation has been just as grim. "It's been hitting all around the county with students and staff," said Carlotta Robinson, assistant principal at East End Elementary, who said students have been suffering from two viruses also, "old-timey flu – chills and fever flu – and the stomach flu."
Robinson said, "It doesn't appear to be tapering off, but I hope we're past the peak."
Washington County schools, according to Kathy Waters, public information officer, have suffered unusually high absences, higher than last school year.
One way to stem the tide of illness, said Waters, is for students to stay home if they're sick. She cited an instance where a sick student, after staying home for a week, returned to school only to fall ill again. Waters said she became "weak and had to go home. That spreads contagion further."
Waters said she understands the difficulty working parents have balancing child care – particularly during illness – and maintaining a presence at work. Still, she urged, if at all possible, "Parents need to keep children home if they are sick."
Mattie Scarbraugh, a Washington County school nurse, reported students she has seen suffer from the same symptoms students in other counties have been experiencing: "G.I. (stomach/intestinal) and upper respiratory viral infections."
She underscored Waters' advice: "Parents, if children are running any temperature, have diarrhea or vomiting, or a wet cough, keep them home."
In addition, she emphasizes using the simplest and easiest precaution to help prevent the spread of germs: "The most important thing all of us can do is to wash our hands and have our kids wash their hands often."
The illness that has cut a swath through school systems has made its way via students to parents as well, said Waters, who noted that a parent with several children in school told her the stomach virus had passed through her entire family, causing both parents to miss work.
Waters is optimistic that old man winter may be playing out though. "Hopefully, spring is right around the corner and will bring with it better health for our children and adults," she said.