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Four local school districts closed due to rampant flu-like illnesses

February 5, 2019

Four East Idaho school districts have recently closed their doors due to illness and others are bracing for the flu and cold-like viruses that seem to be making their way south.

On Monday, both Shelley and Firth school districts canceled all of their classes. Shelley was expected to remain closed on Tuesday, joined by the Jefferson School District. Officials at the Jefferson district expected to keep their schools closed through Wednesday due to student and staff illnesses.

Fremont School District closed its schools for Friday of last week due to “widespread illness, including influenza, strep throat, and respiratory infections,” according to its Facebook page.

While health officials say flu activity this season has been fairly normal, it does seem to be hitting schools particularly hard. At least seven other individual schools in East Idaho have also closed in recent weeks: Adams Elementary, Burton Elementary and Central High School, all in Rexburg; Taylor’s Crossing Public Charter School, Hope Lutheran School and American Heritage Charter School, all in Idaho Falls; and Tetonia Elementary School in Tetonia.

“It seems (like we’ve had) more closures than usual,” said Eastern Idaho Public Health Surveillance Epidemiologist Mike Taylor.

Although flu is not a reportable illness, Taylor said parents have been telling schools that their kids are out with the flu, strep throat and other cold-like viruses.

Taylor said students don’t always wash their hands, cover their coughs or sneeze into tissues. In addition, they often share keyboards, electronic devices and other equipment, and they may offer other students a sip of their drinks. Such habits can make it easier for germs to spread, he said.

Many of the schools that have closed have used the extra time to sanitize their facilities, so the viruses don’t continue to circulate when their students return.

Tracy McCulloch, community health director for Southeastern Idaho Public Health, which covers Bannock, Bear Lake, Bingham, Butte, Caribou, Franklin, Oneida and Power counties, said they haven’t seen as many illnesses in their area — yet.

“We’re not seeing anything (like what) Health District 7 is experiencing, but we figure it’s only a matter of time until it hits Health District 6,” she said.

McCulloch said they’ve been talking with schools in their district about prevention.

“We’re encouraging students to stay home when they’re sick and wash their hands — typical flu prevention,” she said.

Courtney Fisher, communications and community relations specialist for Pocatello-Chubbuck School District, said they’ve only seen a slight dip in attendance there.

She noted that the district has a robust employee wellness program that advocates flu shots, which she thinks is helping them.

“We haven’t seen a high influx, especially related to employee absences,” she said.

Still, Fisher said they’re actively monitoring the situation and will let stakeholders know if they start seeing a lot more absences.

Flu activity has already been picking up in the Pocatello area.

Louise Zalusky-Kamm, MT, manager of infection prevention at Portneuf Medical Center, said they’ve seen 113 cases of influenza A since Dec. 1, and 110 of those cases have occurred since Jan. 1. They’ve also had one case of influenza B.

“Influenza A is what you typically see earlier in the flu season. Influenza B comes later,” she said.

The hospital has also seen 49 cases of RSV since December.

Zalusky-Kamm agrees that it’s been a fairly average flu season with numbers actually lower than last year.

There were 100 flu-related deaths reported in Idaho last season compared to 6 so far this season.

Still, Zalusky-Kamm reminds people to do what they can to protect themselves. They should avoid being around others who are sick, cough into the inside of their elbow, use tissues and then discard them properly, and wash their hands frequently, she said.

Zalusky-Kamm also encourages people who are considered high risk — those who are pregnant, elderly or have asthma, etc. — to get the flu shot.

“The CDC reports the match is better this year than last year,” she said. “If you got the shot now and still got the flu, the symptoms would be less.”

Zalusky-Kamm also urges people to go to their doctor early if they develop flu symptoms, so they can start taking an anti-viral medication as soon as possible.

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