Cause of mass illness still not officially knownCleaning crews remained busy Thursday disinfecting Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in the aftermath of a suspected a gastrointestinal illness that sent one-third of the student body home by Wednesday.
By: Ross Dolan, The Daily Republic
Cleaning crews remained busy Thursday disinfecting Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in the aftermath of a suspected a gastrointestinal illness that sent one-third of the student body home by Wednesday.
State medical officials believe the illness is a form of gastroenteritis caused by the Norwalk virus, a type of norovirus, which causes vomiting and diarrhea but which generally resolves in two to three days.
GBR parent Jill Weber said her daughter, Elizabeth, a second-grader, became ill on Tuesday, and a younger child was ill last weekend.
“I’ve just been busy cleaning and doing laundry,” she said, thankful she and her husband haven’t been ill. Weber also serves as the PTA vice president at GBR.
“It seemed to spread like wildfire. I never experienced anything like it,” she said.
“I got a call from the school Tuesday to come and get my daughter,” she recalled. “When I got there, a lot of sick kids were walking around with bags and trash cans. I felt badly for the staff and janitors, but they were doing everything they could. It was a nightmare.”
Weber said a friend called her Thursday and said her daughter was just getting sick. The illness follows a predictable course, she said.
“There’s about six hours of upset tummy,” she said, “and then it moves to the other end. About 18 to 20 hours later, things are back to normal.”
Weber is hopeful the illness doesn’t spread to other schools.
GBR was closed Thursday and will remain closed today to arrest the spread of the illness and to give custodial staff time to clean the school.
Absences were at normal levels Thursday at the district’s two other elementary schools.
Mitchell Superintendent of Schools Joe Graves said the state Health Department, with the permission of parents, gathered body fluid specimens from area physicians Wednesday for testing, but he had not yet received a definitive report on the cause of the illnesses.
“In the meanwhile, they’ve told us to scour the building using cleaning supplies known to kill viruses,” he said.
After a busy Tuesday and Wednesday, patient traffic had returned to normal at the Sanford Children’s Clinic. Dr. Christine Arnold reported Wednesday that one patient was hospitalized. No other children were referred for hospitalization on Thursday.
Trish Delaney, vice president of marketing for Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, said Thursday that Pediatrics Plus has treated a few children but the office has also been busy fielding numerous phone calls from concerned parents. Parents were being instructed on how to care for their children, she said, and were being advised to bring only seriously ill children in for treatment.
Eight children were treated at the hospital emergency room during the outbreak, but none was admitted to the hospital, she said.
Rumors have circulated blaming the outbreak on causes as varied as poor custodial care and the milk students had for lunch Tuesday and Wednesday.
Both concerns were considered, Graves said, but the cleaning issue was quickly discounted.
Missed vacuuming wouldn’t cause this kind of issue, Graves was told, but he did direct the custodial staff to delay trash pickup so that used milk cartons would be available to investigators if necessary.
A quick check showed that milk served to students wasn’t bad and had more than a week left before its expiration date.
Department of Health personnel, Graves said, also told him that in any case, drinking past-due milk typically wouldn’t cause the symptoms displayed by ill students. Food was also checked and cleared.
GBR staff assembled as much information as they had for health officials, Graves said.
“We knew every kid who was sick, whether they had breakfast or lunch that day and when they left, and we’ve now had dozens of people who have called in and said, ‘My kids didn’t even have anything that day and they’re sick,’ and parents who haven’t been in school have also reported being sick,” he said.
“We’re just doing everything the Department of Health is recommending,” Graves said.