Flu outbreak leads school to cancel classes

February 26, 2008 4:01:51 PM PST
An outbreak of the flu forced a south suburban school to cancel classes Tuesday. More than two dozen students and staff members at St. Mary School in Park Forest are ill. Doctors say the flu season is peaking.

It seems to be a late start to the flu season, but it's not unheard of to see a spike in cases in February or March. Experts have advice to avoid getting sick, but in the meantime, one school in the south suburbs took a radical measure to prevent more cases.

The only lesson Tuesday at St. Mary's: bleach is the best defense. A few volunteers armed with gloves, sponges and mops do battle with any virus that may be leftover from the students and teachers.

"We've washed walls and bathrooms and decks, shelves, chairs, tables, doorknobs. Anywhere a child or teacher may be," said Principal John Prevost, St. Mary's School.

Prevost took a drastic step of closing the school Tuesday, when 27 students ended up sick, and four of the school's 10 teachers came down with what appears to be the flu Monday.

"It's hard to cover all the teaching positions and still offer a decent education," said Prevost.

As the cleaning crews go room to room, it seems to the community is also seeing a late season increase of influenza. Will County saw 84 confirmed cases in local emergency rooms the second week of February. Cook County reports 216 confirmed cases from a sampling of local doctor's offices and hospitals.

"We are seeing many pediatric patients, because I've heard that our emergency room has been very busy," said Dr. John Marcinak, Univ. of Chicago Medical Center.

Marcinak is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Even though it's the end of February, he says, flu vaccines can be effective.

"The epidemic may persist for a few more weeks, to a month or so, so we're seeing influenza vaccine is still recommended and may provide some benefit," said Marcinak.

Back at St. Mary's, there is hope that the day off for cleaning may break the cycle of flu.

"I think this is a radical step. We had to do something for our students to try and keep them healthy," said Prevost.

Any sneeze or cough from an infected person is a possible transmission of the virus. Dr. Marcinak says if you're sick stay home from school or work. He says, more than the disinfecting, the day off at St. Mary's may have prevented more transmission of the flu.