Flu rips through Chattanooga area schools

Flu rips through Chattanooga area schools

December 12th, 2012 by Kate Harrison Belz in News

RN Stacy Henderson gives a flu shot to 3-year-old Seth Futch while his dad, Christopher, holds him at the Catoosa County Health Department in this file photo.

Photo by Allison Kwesell

SCHOOLS CLOSED

Bledsoe County schools -- Closed Monday and Tuesday after 18 percent of students were out sick.

Etowah City School -- Closed on Friday after 23 percent of students were out sick.

Van Buren County schools -- Closed on Dec. 5-7 after 18 percent of students were out sick.

All the above school systems expect to be open today, officials said.

WHERE TO GET VACCINATED

Flu vaccines are available at local health departments, most pharmacies, health care clinics and doctor's offices. Many insurance plans cover the cost of vaccine. Many county health departments in Tennessee are offering free vaccinations, although Hamilton County is not.

With bus drivers too sick to drive, teachers too sick to teach and students too sick to learn, several regional schools are surrendering school days to the flu in hopes of curbing the virus' rampant spread among children.

A powerful strain of the flu has crippled several school systems throughout Tennessee, forcing them to close their doors to disinfect buildings and allow the illness to take its course while students, faculty and staff recover at home.

Bledsoe County Schools closed Monday and Tuesday after 328 children in the 2,000-student system were absent Friday, along with 28 teachers and several bus drivers, said Jennifer Terry, schools director.

"We're a real small district, so it's hard to find substitutes -- especially for that many," Terry said.

This year, Tennessee has seen the earliest start to the flu season since 2003, and state health officials encourage people who are not yet vaccinated to get a shot soon, according to The Associated Press.

Sick students began swamping nurses' offices last week, Bledsoe school officials said.

"I have talked with the health department and with the hospital, and they said it's been a really bad strain," Terry said.

Patients fighting the flu and fevers have crowded into the Bledsoe Internal Medicine and Pediatrics office the last three weeks, said Dr. David Sapp, a physician at the office, which is part of Erlanger Health System's Bledsoe campus.

"For us it's been much harder than the last couple of years," said Sapp. "It has been very hard on people with lung issues. We have had folks from nursing homes and many, many children. Hopefully we can limp through to Christmas break and it can begin to lose traction."

Bledsoe follows schools in Van Buren, Clay, Overton, Perry and Humphreys counties and Etowah City School, which canceled school last week. In Putnam County, the Cookeville Regional Medical Center is temporarily barring children under age 16 from visits because children are a major source of the spread of the flu, according to the AP.

Mike Martin, director of Van Buren Schools, said he made the decision to close three days last week after absentee rates more than doubled from 8 percent to 18 percent in three days.

"It was a very hard choice. It's hard on our parents. We have a high poverty rate, so for some of these kids I know that not coming to school means not being able to eat," he said. "But we need these children to get better."

The last week, maintenance crews and parent volunteers have been scouring the schools with disinfectant.

"We've sanitized every door, every desk, every hall, every bathroom, every office," Martin said. Students returned to school Monday, with 6 percent still absent Tuesday.

Etowah City School, which teaches pre-K to eighth grade, closed Friday after student numbers plummeted during the week.

"It's been really bad," said Jennifer Heath, who handles student attendance. "In one class we had only four kids. The teachers are stuck. It slows down the entire education process."

Other schools in McMinn County have not closed, but mother Stephanie Shanahan wishes they would.

"Last week my daughter was out with strep, and this week both of my children are home with the flu," she said. "When will McMinn County decide to close for a while to help the children get better and quit spreading this junk?"

Hamilton County Schools also has seen an uptick in flu cases, along with conjunctivitis, strep and mononucleosis, said Sheryl Rogers, coordinator of health services for the school system.

About 10 percent of students and teachers have been out sick, she said, but she noted it is highly unlikely any schools would close because of illness.

"It would take a whole lot of sickness to close a system this big," Rogers said.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.