Fall and winter are synonymous with cold season, especially in the northern states. If you have children, this can be a harsh reality as illnesses frequently pass from student to student. In part, that’s because closed areas with large numbers of people, including nursing homes, large office buildings, cruise ships and, yes, schools, are often the perfect environment for the spread of disease and illness. Many of these places have infection/exposure control programs of some kind in place, but it’s worth revisiting the basics from time to time, especially this time of year.

Major outbreaks, such as Ebola in 2014, typically get the most attention, but smaller outbreaks can also affect day to day life. For example, Saint Charles East High School, part of St. Charles District 303 in northwest Illinois, was recently closed for two days due to 800 student and 50 staff absences on a single day. Why? The most likely culprit is believed to be norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal virus.

Though norovirus isn’t as serious as Ebola, according to the CDC, norovirus “causes 19-21 million cases of acute gastroenteritis, and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths, mostly among young children and older adults” every year.1 Symptoms can take anywhere from 12-48 hours to surface and include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches1

During the same week, Ashaway Elementary school in Rhode Island was hit with 80 student and six teacher absences, also due to a gastrointestinal virus. Recognizing the importance of controlling the situation, both districts worked closely with parents and the health department and/or CDC to mitigate further spreading. Though absence rates were not abnormal in other District 303 schools, all 17 schools were thoroughly cleaned with bleach per CDC recommendations and the staff at Ashaway took similar precautions.

These outbreaks are nearly impossible to prevent completely, especially in places with young children, but several simple actions can help minimize the likelihood of an outbreak. Specifically regarding norovirus, most outbreaks in the U.S. happen from November to April, so now is the time to take action. Even if norovirus doesn’t seem to be going around your community, the below recommendations can help keep illnesses at bay:

  • Simple hygiene is critical – Always wash hands thoroughly. If you work in a school, consider reviewing hand washing basics with the students. Reminders never hurt.
  • Stay home! – Work and school can wait. Give yourself and/or your kids time to get better and avoid spreading the illness to others.
  • Avoid travel – If possible, do not take public transportation when sick. Planes, trains and buses are confined spaces.
  • Not sharing is caring – Avoid sharing food, drinks, utensils and other items.

As with all contagious diseases, understanding the threat is the first step toward preventing the disease from spreading. Though illness cannot always be prevented, following recommendations — including hand washing procedures and illness policies — can help prevent the rapid spread of an illness. So stay aware, stay safe and stay healthy!

1. https://www.cdc.gov/norovirus/php/illness-outbreaks.html