Tests should determine whether fast-moving viruses that closed two Douglas County schools this month are related, a state health official said today.
Illness swept through the Oakland School District campus Wednesday, two weeks after a norovirus outbreak closed Fir Grove Elementary in Roseburg.
Health officials suspect norovirus also struck in Oakland, though stool samples have yet to be tested to confirm that diagnosis.
Dr. Emilio DeBess, an epidemiology investigator with the Oregon Health Authority, said the tests will determine whether norovirus also afflicted Oakland and whether it’s the same type that struck in Roseburg.
“We should be able to tell whether there’s a connection,” he said.
Janitors are scrubbing Oakland elementary, middle and high schools, which share a campus and cafeteria, much like janitors washed down Fir Grove two weeks ago.
Oakland School District Superintendent Nanette Hagen said today the district has drawn on Roseburg’s experience to rid its schools of contaminated surfaces.
“It’s helped us know what the best practices are,” she said. “We’re really trying to take every precaution to make the school as germ-free as any place can be.”
Oakland schools are expected to reopen Monday.
DeBess said that people infected with norovirus typically feel better after 24 to 48 hours, but remain contagious for many more days.
“You can be potentially shedding the organism for up to 10 days,” he said.
Norvirus can’t be inhaled. It spreads when someone touches an infected person or contaminated surface and then puts a hand to his or her mouth.
Hagen said she wonders whether the virus was gradually passed up from Roseburg to Oakland.
“Kids play on the same sports teams, they have families that intermingle, relatives,” she said. “It doesn’t take that much contamination.”
Health investigators were never able to pinpoint the source of the outbreak at Fir Grove.
The virus spread rapidly on the morning of Nov. 15, prompting the school to send students home at midmorning. Roseburg School District Superintendent Larry Parsons said Thursday he was worried the virus would not be contained to Fir Grove.
“I was scared to death it was going to spread to other schools. Logic tells you it was going to spread through siblings,” he said.
So far, Roseburg schools haven’t seen a reoccurrence of the virus, though Parsons said the district remains vigilant.
The district has changed cleaning supplies, relying now on diluted bleach, which is effective against norovirus. Janitors are paying more attention to cleaning all surfaces, Parsons said.
Also, the outbreak impressed upon school officials that the hand-sanitizers installed in classrooms and hallways to cut down on the spread of germs are no substitute for thorough hand washing.
“I think we probably got a little too reliant on hand-sanitizers,” Parsons said. “They’re good, but it’s just that they’re not useful for everything, like the norovirus.”
Oakland also will change cleaning chemicals, Hagen said.
Norovirus outbreaks most often occur in nursing homes and are far less common in restaurants, hospitals, cruise ships and schools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were 1,518 confirmed norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. in 2010 and 2011. Most, 60 percent, were in long-term care facilities. Only 4 percent, 64 cases, were in schools.
In Oregon, state officials recorded 797 gastroenteritis outbreaks transmitted by person-to-person contact between 2003 and 2011. Most of the outbreaks were confirmed to be norovirus and 663 were in nursing homes. Outbreaks in schools totaled 25.
DeBess said nursing homes are especially susceptible to norovirus outbreaks because residents are fragile and receive outside visitors.
Also, like anywhere, people forget to wash their hands with soap and water.
“This is an opportunity to educate the kids so that they understand it is important to wash their hands,” DeBess said.
DeBess recommended washing hands for as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.
“Two ‘Happy Birthdays,’ and you’ll be happy and healthy,” he said.
• City Editor Don Jenkins can be reached at 541-957-4201 or firstname.lastname@example.org.