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updated: 3/9/2012 8:19 PM

Hundreds sickened by norovirus at Algonquin school

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  • Head custodian Teles Contreras disinfects locker surfaces and handles Friday at Westfield Community School in Algonquin.

       Head custodian Teles Contreras disinfects locker surfaces and handles Friday at Westfield Community School in Algonquin.
    Laura Stoecker/lstoecker@ dailyherald.com

  • Head custodian Teles Contreras disinfects locker surfaces and handles Friday at Westfield Community School in Algonquin. Norovirus is raging through the school with more than half of the school's elementary population out sick on Friday. Within four hours of cleaning on Friday, Contreras had already gone through three bottles of the disinfectant.

       Head custodian Teles Contreras disinfects locker surfaces and handles Friday at Westfield Community School in Algonquin. Norovirus is raging through the school with more than half of the school's elementary population out sick on Friday. Within four hours of cleaning on Friday, Contreras had already gone through three bottles of the disinfectant.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Spread of the norovirus

 

An outbreak of norovirus, commonly known as the stomach flu, is the suspected culprit behind hundreds of illnesses at Westfield Community School in Algonquin.

More than half of the school's elementary students and about one-fifth of the middle schoolers were absent on Friday.

Westfield Principal Bill Doran said the school had taken measures to prevent the disease from spreading after it became apparent that there was an issue on Thursday.

Doran said absentee numbers for elementary students jumped from 17 on Wednesday to 109 Thursday morning. Those figures spiked to 262 absentees on Friday morning, which accounted for about 55 percent of the elementary school's population of 475 students, Doran said. The absentee numbers for middle school were 97 on Thursday and 223 on Friday, Doran said. In addition, 11 teachers from across elementary and middle school were absent on Friday.

Doran couldn't say how many of the absences were because kids were sick and how many were because parents were trying to prevent their kids from getting sick.

The school underwent a deep cleaning on Thursday night, which consisted of sanitizing desks, chairs, door handles, bathrooms, water fountains and other "high touch areas."

"We have communicated with constituents and families and we've done a deep cleaning," Doran said. "We took proactive measures and continue to monitor the situation. I am very proud of the staff and the work they have done."

A news release from Community Unit District 300 said no other schools were reporting similar absences. District nurse Sherrie Schmidt said the school would continue monitoring absentee numbers for the next few days.

Erin Ward, who has two children at Westfield, said her 6-year-old daughter, Briana, started feeling ill on Wednesday night. Although the symptoms had eased by Thursday afternoon, she said Briana, a first-grader, needed to stay home to regain her strength.

"I thought she had the stomach flu," Ward said. "Then the district sent out the warning. They have been very good about notifying us."

Briana's older brother, Brandon, was fine and continued to go to school, Ward said.

Kane County Department of Health spokesman Tom Schlueter said an outbreak is defined as four or more cases. Although laboratory tests have not been completed, the county's epidemiologist suspected norovirus based on symptoms reported by parents. Nurses from the department collected stool and vomit samples from families in the area, which have been sent to the state laboratory for testing.

"The school has been very cooperative and very good about getting information to us," Schlueter said. "They took the right proactive measures."

The department did not advise the school to close, Schlueter said.

"The prevalence, because this is such a common illness, and the fact that it goes away so quickly, that wasn't the recommended procedure in this case," Schlueter said. "The hardship placed on the parents and the cost of losing one day of education were not worth it."

Schlueter said cases of norovirus are common in confined areas such as schools, hospitals, senior-care facilities and even office buildings.

"It is the most common form of gastrointestinal illness and is highly contagious," Schlueter said. "It can spread very quickly in confined areas. Frankly, there is no real treatment for it and there is not a real vaccine. The good news is, though, it usually goes away in 24 to 48 hours."

There are two types of norovirus -- food borne and person-to-person. Schlueter said after discussions with the district nurse and administration, it was determined the outbreak at Westfield was transmitted through person-to-person contact. Health departments in neighboring counties said they had not experience an uptick in the number of norovirus cases reported.

Lake County Health Department spokeswoman Carolyn Waller said the county had not seen any cases in several weeks. And in McHenry County, which is still dealing with a whooping cough outbreak that has reached more than 300 cases, the number of cases of norovirus is average.

Sean McDermott, spokesman for the Cook County Department of Health, said six cases of norovirus had been reported in 2012. Those ranged from cases involving long-term care facilities and a school. McDermott did not have information on which school was involved.

"It is common for this time of year and it has been a typical norovirus season," McDermott said.

In January, food-borne norovirus sickened 146 people who had eaten at Bob Chinn's Crab House in Wheeling. The restaurant closed for several days afterward.

The best defense is good hygiene, like washing your hands, especially after using the toilet or preparing food.

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