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Students, staff absences increase as flu rates spike

Stanly County Schools is taking steps to avoid spreading flu as more staff and students miss school due to illness.

The district does not have information on what illnesses students have, and not everyone who has the flu may see a doctor for testing. But as cases of flu have increased locally and in most of the United States, the absence rate has spiked.

“Normal (student) absence rates run between 3-5 percent for any particular day,” administrator and school board assistant Hope Miller-Drye said via email. “We began tracking absences for Stanly County Schools on Jan. 9, 2019, at the request of school nurses and the health department, as they saw a rise in cases of the flu.”

As of Wednesday, the student absence rate was 8.75 percent, Miller said. Staff have also been affected, with the school system receiving 108 staff absence requests on Jan. 31 and 118 on Feb. 1.

A professional day on Jan. 22 was used to “heavily disinfect” school buildings, Miller-Drye added. The district has also been promoting awareness of the issue and how to best avoid flu.

“Messages were sent home to all families via our SchoolMessenger phone alert system on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019 and Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 to help inform parents of the increase of illnesses being reported and best health practices,” Miller said.

Since cases of flu do not have to be reported to the state, there isn’t a total number of flu cases available, said Jennifer Layton, human services program specialist with the Stanly County Department of Public Health.

The health department did confirm “several cases” in January, she said via email, noting that according to the state, fewer positive flu tests have been recorded than last year.

“The vaccine provided this season has been very accurate in the types of flu it was designed for,” Layton said. “In addition, we have had fewer flu-related deaths in (North Carolina) this season and currently no reported pediatric deaths.”

North Carolina is not the only area hit by flu. Somewhere between 6 million and 7 million people in the United States had already been affected as of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention release on Jan. 11. As of that date, between 69,000 and 84,000 had been hospitalized due to flu.

A CDC FluView report for the week ending Jan. 26 noted 49 of 54 jurisdictions displayed regional or widespread cases of flu-like illnesses. (The jurisdictions include all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.)

According to the CDC, H1N1 has affected the most people in the nation, but H3N2 has been the most reported in the Southeast. However, the North Carolina State Laboratory of Public Health had identified more H1N1 cases than any other type, according to the North Carolina Weekly Influenza Surveillance Summary published for the week ending on Jan. 26.

The silver lining is that this year’s flu season isn’t as bad as last season — at least so far.

“Flu severity is assessed by looking at levels of influenza-like-illness (ILI), flu hospitalization rates and the percentage of deaths resulting from pneumonia or influenza that occurred during each season,” the CDC said in the Jan. 11 release. “It’s not possible to say definitively at this time how severe the 2018-2019 season will be since there are still weeks of flu activity to come, but at this time, severity indicators are lower than they were during a similar time-frame last season.”

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also advised caution in a release on Thursday, encouraging those who have not yet received flu shots to do so.

According to the department, the total number of known flu-related deaths in North Carolina this season is at 35, though the release noted “many” flu-related deaths go undiagnosed or are not reported.

“Flu will be circulating, and infection rates will likely remain high at least for the next several weeks,” State Epidemiologist Zack Moore said in the release. “Getting vaccinated now is the best way to protect yourself and those you come in contact with.”

In an effort to protect its patients, Atrium Health announced on Thursday that hospital access will be restricted for visitors under the age of 12 in all Charlotte-area in-patient hospitals. This includes Carolinas HealthCare System Stanly.

Anyone who has symptoms similar to those of flu — including “fever, headaches/body aches/pain, cough or sore throat, stuffy or runny nose, chills, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea” — are asked to avoid visiting anyone in the hospital. In the case of “extraordinary circumstances” where someone who may have flu, Atrium requests they wear a mask.

In the release, Atrium noted Novant Health, Cone Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Randolph Health took the same measures.

Imari Scarbrough is a freelance contributor for The Stanly News and Press.

Do you have flu?

While both a cold and flu can leave you feeling drained, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that flu should feel different.

Some people may experience a fever or “feeling feverish/chills,” the CDC notes on its website, adding some people may not have a fever.

Other symptoms include a “cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, fatigue (tiredness) [and] some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults,” according to the CDC.

“Flu usually comes on suddenly,” the CDC says. “People who are sick with flu often feel some or all of these symptoms.”

While the majority of people with flu suffer no further problems, some people develop sinus or ear infections, according to the CDC. Pneumonia is considered to be a “serious” complication, along with “inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure.)”

Those with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or heart disease may experience more severe effects.

The most vulnerable to suffering complications are children under 2, though those over 65, those with some chronic conditions, pregnant women and children under age 5 are also at a higher risk than the general population.

Avoiding flu

Jennifer Layton, human services program specialist for the Stanly County Department of Public Health, recommends taking some simple steps to avoid your chance of catching flu.

“Get the flu vaccine, wash hands often with warm water and soap, cover the nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing, (and) clean commonly touched areas often (ex., phones, tables, door knobs),” Layton cautioned.

If you do feel sick, the health department recommends taking precautions to avoid spreading it.

“Anyone feeling sick should stay home from work or school,” Layton advised.