It's not yet clear what bug is to blame for the outbreak of illness that sickened more than 180 students and teachers at Mary Our Queen School and forced the school's closure for 1½ days.
The Douglas County Health Department is, however, advising officials at the Catholic school, 3405 S. 119th St., to treat the building cleanup as if it's the highly contagious norovirus.
Norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach, intestines or both, leading to pain, nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea.
A school email that went out to parents Wednesday morning said that 173 of the K-8 school's roughly 500 students were ill and more were reporting sick to the office. Eight staff members also were ill, the email said.
“At this time, we do not have a diagnosed illness, but the Health Department is asking that we get stool samples from five of our families so that they can diagnose the illness . . . We will be disinfecting the entire building.”
Dr. Anne O'Keefe, the health department's senior epidemiologist, said it's much too early to know what caused the outbreak, but officials recommend treating it as if it's norovirus to put in place the stringent cleanup protocols used to address such a bug.
“It's just so contagious,” she said of norovirus. “We don't want to wait until it's confirmed” to start the cleanup.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends cleaning and disinfecting contaminated surfaces using a chlorine bleach solution with a concentration of 5 to 25 tablespoons of household bleach per gallon of water. Crews also can use disinfectants registered as effective against norovirus by the EPA.
O'Keefe said people cleaning up after someone who was ill should wear gloves. Many times, the person doing the cleaning also will get sick.
“If someone's sick with it at home,” she said, “I usually say, ‘If the sick person can use one bathroom and everyone else can use the other one, you should try to do that.'”
People often hear about norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships and in nursing homes and hospitals, O'Keefe said.
Laurie Sobetski, whose twin 12-year-old boys attend the school, said one son had complained about a stomachache in the morning, but he didn't have a temperature, so he went to school. But she picked him up about 8:45 a.m. after the school called, saying he had complained of feeling sick and looked “as white as a ghost.”
Before 10:30 a.m., she received an email from the school, notifying her to pick up her other son.
“I think they handled it perfectly,” Sobetski said of school officials, especially, she said, considering the number of children who were sick.
Assistant Principal Tara Petersen said school officials on Wednesday contacted the Archdiocese of Omaha office and the health department after so many children either missed school entirely or were complaining of feeling ill. The school was closed for the rest of the day and will be closed all day Thursday so crews can do extra cleaning.
Petersen said the regular school cleaning crew and a maintenance team would be working on sanitizing surfaces in the school.
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