Rash of flu cases closes Pocahontas County schools
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Flu has hit Pocahontas County students so hard that the superintendent canceled school for two days.
"It's all around us," Superintendent C.C. Lester said Thursday in a phone interview. "I hope this is the end of it, but you never know."
The widespread symptoms in Pocahontas - and talk of flu in other counties - has school system leaders bracing for an uptick in illness across West Virginia.
In Pocahontas County, Lester learned about the recent spike in sick students after speaking with a doctor at one of his county's in-school health clinics.
He said the clinics in three of the county's five schools help leaders swiftly identify a wave of illnesses. Each school in the county will have a clinic next year.
"We have a lot of illnesses in today's society, and very little care," Lester said of rural areas. "I don't think you can do enough for kids."
The doctor at the clinic told Lester more students than usual had been coming in and a number of staff members had complained of flu-like symptoms as well.
It turned out 15 to 20 percent of the county's roughly 1,100 students had missed school because of illness recently.
Lester spoke with county health officials, who advised him to cancel school Thursday and today.
It's the first time Lester has closed schools for a health-related reason, and he received a number of calls Thursday from concerned local residents. He's going to check back with schools on Monday to see if attendance is still down, but he's optimistic the county won't have to miss any more days.
Pocahontas County tends to get a lot of snow, and Lester said missing days is a problem every year. This year it could be particularly bothersome. The county school system missed three days in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
By missing Thursday and today, the county already has reached the five days it had built into its calendar, Lester said. County school boards aim for 180 days of instruction each year but often miss the target.
Health officials in Kanawha County haven't seen a similar increase in flu cases, but that doesn't mean they're not getting ready.
"Believe me, we will be touching base with (Kanawha County Schools)," said Janet Briscoe, director of epidemiology for the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department.
"From what we're seeing in other regions. . . we truly expect our numbers will be going up," she continued.
Last week there was a "small flu outbreak" at a daycare in Kanawha County, but there have been no reports of outbreaks at local schools, Briscoe said.
She didn't know the exact number of children affected at the daycare facility but said at least two children were tested and confirmed to have the flu.
The health department and school system work together to create an absence baseline, Briscoe explained. Now is the time of year for viruses to fly around, so schools expect some absenteeism. When the number goes above the baseline, Briscoe said the school system contacts the health department.
A school can continue to operate with a fair number of students nursing illnesses, Briscoe said. The real problems come when too many teachers start sniffling.
"The criteria for closing schools is more if you don't have staff to teach," Briscoe said. "As long as you're able to function, we don't normally suggest you close schools for outbreaks."
Given the unpredictability of the flu and reports of outbreaks around the state, Briscoe said the department would closely monitor the situation in Kanawha County Schools.
She said there's still time to get flu shots, and she encourages people to do so before they come in close contact with others during holiday events.