Norwalk virus suspected as cause of GBR illness outbreakMitchell School District and state health officials are investigating the cause of an illness that has one-third of the students at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary out sick.
Mitchell School District and state health officials are investigating the cause of an illness that has one-third of the students at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary out sick.
Superintendent Joe Graves said the mass absences at the school began Tuesday with 30-35 students. By Wednesday afternoon, absences increased to 130 students — about a third of the 400-student body — along with five teachers and two members of the school’s support staff.
Graves also announced Wednesday that GBR will be closed today and Friday to prevent the spread of illness and allow staff time to sanitize the school building.
“As this is a localized school dismissal, the days will not be made up,” he said.
Graves said the school has received a test result indicating that at least one of the students is suffering from the Norwalk virus. He said the school is awaiting more test results before settling on that as the official cause.
“It’s a normal but fast-moving form of stomach flu,” Graves said.
School and state Health Department officials investigated possible causes within the school building — including the school lunch program — but found nothing, Graves said. He noted that some of the children who are sick did not eat the school lunch.
“We’re trying to investigate every possible lead we can,” he said.
The symptoms reported by the ill students include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pains.
The mass illnesses have come at an odd time of year. Graves said it’s common to experience widespread illnesses during the winter, but it’s rare to experience them in the spring just ahead of this year’s May 24 end of the school year.
Some illnesses have been reported at other schools in the city, but nothing to the extent of what has happened at GBR.
Dr. Christine Arnold, a Mitchell pediatrician, said she has treated several, and hospitalized one, child for what presented as an “outbreak of vomiting and diarrhea.” One of the kids who came in Tuesday said, according to Arnold, “one person would vomit, and then 10, and before you knew it 35 kids were sent home from school.”
“Basically, we’re looking at an acute gastroenteritis and the Centers for Disease Control has been in contact with us and they’re considering the possibilities of Norwalk virus or salmonella, and we are currently testing for those,” Arnold said.
Arnold suspects the Norwalk virus will be the culprit, considering the illness’ symptoms and the speed of its spread. The incubation period for the disease is 12 to 72 hours, she said.
“It starts out with violent vomiting, and then within 24 to 36 hours you get the diarrhea. Most cases are over within 24 to 48 hours, but you can see some prolonged cases.”
If tests determine the problems are caused by salmonella, the illness and its treatment could be more serious and extensive, but Arnold does not believe that’s the case. Salmonella cases can persist for up to a month.
According to information from the National Institutes of Health, noroviruses — the broad category that includes the Norwalk virus — cause about 90 percent of the non-bacterial outbreaks of gastroenteritis (commonly known as stomach flu or stomach viruses). The viruses may also be responsible for up to 50 percent of food-borne illnesses. It is commonly transmitted by fecal-contaminated food or water and is spread rapidly through contact with contaminated people, food or water.
Chlorine-based disinfectants do a better job of killing the virus than do alcohol or detergents, according to the NIH.
The bathroom is a common source of the illness, since kids wash their hands and then unwittingly contaminate sinks and faucets, Arnold said. She recommends hand-washing, using paper towels to turn off faucets in public restrooms, and using hand sanitizer afterward. Clorox wipes can be used to clean the bathroom and to keep the disease from spreading from person to person, she said.
A cheap bathroom disinfectant can be made at home by mixing a small amount of household bleach with water, she added.
“Always wash your hands before eating,” Arnold said. “Alcohol is 62 percent effective at killing the virus, but it is no substitute for using soap and water.”
— Editor Seth Tupper and reporter Ross Dolan contributed to this report.