ST. AGATHA, Maine — Attendance seems to be getting back to normal at Wisdom Middle-High School after a stomach flu left staff and students reeling and emptied a third of classrooms last week.
The school illnesses occurred as the state epidemiologist was preparing a statewide alert about the suspected cause, a norovirus that has been reported this winter in nearly a dozen other places in Maine, including nursing homes and day care facilities.
“It just came out of the blue,” said Fern Desjardins, superintendent of SAD 33, which serves students in Frenchville and St. Agatha. “The students and the staff have been suffering from vomiting and diarrhea. It has just been at the middle-high school. We have not had an issue at the elementary school.”
The superintendent said that out of 150 students at the middle-high school, 36 (24 percent) were absent last Thursday and 53 (35 percent) were absent on Friday. Three of the 21 staff members, or 14 percent, were absent Jan. 26, while six, or nearly 30 percent, were out the next day.
“Whenever more than 15 percent of students are ill, we have to call the state Department of Education,” said Desjardins. “[The Maine Center for Disease Control] helped us and said they suspect a norovirus is responsible.”
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noroviruses are very common and highly contagious, causing more than 20 million cases of acute gastroenteritis — inflammation of the stomach and intestines — each year in the U.S.
The most common symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, nausea and stomach cramping.
Other, less common symptoms may include low-grade fever, chills, headache, muscle aches and general fatigue.
The norovirus can spread from person to person through contaminated food or water and by touching contaminated surfaces.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Sears said Monday that the incident in St. Agatha came just as he was putting the finishing touches on a statewide alert to doctors, school nurses and other health officials about the norovirus. Sears said that there have been 11 reports of norovirus statewide so far this winter.
“We have seen it in schools, nursing homes, day care facilities and other places,” he said. “The problem is it is highly transmittable, so when you get a group of people together, it can really spread.”
“It usually runs its course in about 48 hours, but it is a very uncomfortable 48 hours,” he said Monday.
Desjardins said that custodians at the school have spent hours scrubbing down desks, classrooms and other areas to kill germs. Students and staff also had the weekend to recover.
“Today, we have 14 students absent, which is 9 percent of the student population,” she said. “And there are two staff members out. So it is going down.”
The superintendent said that district officials are keeping an eye on pupils at the Dr. Levesque Elementary School because a number of students have siblings who attend the middle-high school. So far, however, the illness has not affected elementary pupils.
The CDC offers a number of tips to prevent the spread of norovirus, including washing hands often, carefully washing fruits and vegetables, and cooking oysters and other shellfish thoroughly before eating them.
People who are infected with norovirus should not prepare food for others while they have symptoms and for three days after they recover from their illness. All contaminated surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected by using a bleach-based household cleaner as directed on the product label. Contaminated laundry also should be washed thoroughly.
For information, go to http://www.cdc.gov/.