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Flu hitting students at Stafford school

BY JIM HALL

The students, staff and parents at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Stafford County can be forgiven for thinking they’re trapped in some sort of cruel experiment.

This week the number of absences at the school has been more than double the norm. And at 10 percent, the student absentee rate is higher than any other Stafford school.

“We have been hit with quite a few kids coming through the clinic,” said Dottie Truslow, principal.

The sick children have flu-like symptoms, including a cough and rapidly developing fever.

“Initially their temperature may be 100 [degrees], then within about 20 minutes, it goes up to over 102,” Truslow said. “It’s that quick.”

This week school officials contacted Dr. Brooke Rossheim, director of the Rappahannock Area Health District, after the absentee rate jumped. On Dec. 11, Rossheim wrote to parents and staff, saying that students at the school on Mountain View Road have been diagnosed with influenza. He also offered information about the disease and advice on how to deal it.

“It is recommended that parents keep children with respiratory symptoms and fever out of school until they have, at a minimum, been fever-free for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine,” he wrote.

Margaret Brent may be alone in its misery. A spokeswoman for Spotsylvania County schools said Thursday that schools there have reported no outbreaks. In Fredericksburg, Laura Baxter-Christopher, school spokeswoman, said she’s not aware of an unusual number of absences related to the flu. And Rossheim said he’s had no reports of outbreaks from anywhere in the Fredericksburg-area health district.

Margaret Brent, the home of the “Bobcats,” has 845 students and 47 teachers in grades K–5. In addition to its academic program, it boasts a camera club, fifth-grade chorus and proud group of parents. More than 140 of them volunteered for the annual Field Day. Yet, somehow, the North Stafford school may become the proverbial canary in the coal mine, a warning for what lies ahead.

Its absenteeism rate began climbing after Thanksgiving, Truslow said. She and the school nurse speculate that students picked up the bug while visiting out-of-town relatives. In normal times, a 23-student class at the school will have zero-to-two absences per day, she said. School-wide, the total number of absences will be about 30. On Wednesday, 74 students were absent and another 16 were sent home by the nurse. On Thursday, 88 students were absent and six were sent home.

“We had one class one day that had nine out,” Truslow said.

Elsewhere in the region and state, the number of cases of influenza-like illness has been on the rise, Rossheim said. For the week ending Dec. 8, Virginia reported a “regional” level of illness, up from “local” activity the previous three weeks. Four Southern states—North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi—have reported “widespread” levels of flu, the highest category as defined by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It looks like it’s shaping up to be a bad flu season, but only time will tell,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told the Associated Press last week.

Truslow said she and her staff are “hoping we get it early, and then we’ll be done with it.”

Jim Hall: 540/374-5433

jhall@freelancestar.com

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