Alaska health officials suspect the flu is behind a significant spike in absences this week at Anchorage’s Rogers Park Elementary School. On Tuesday, about half of the school’s students stayed home.
“I don’t think we would say every single person impacted had flu B, but I think we feel comfortable saying that it’s playing a significant role,” said Louisa Castrodale, an epidemiologist at the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services.
While it’s not unusual for some students to miss school days right before a holiday break, Anchorage School District officials say the rate of absences at Rogers Park Elementary this week is striking. The district has partnered with city and state health officials to figure out what’s going on.
“It’s definitely a significant number,” said Daniel Barker, the district’s director of elementary education. “It’s not something that I would say I’ve seen.”
Starting around Friday, illness appears to have flared and spread with speed at Rogers Park Elementary, a school of about 500 students in kindergarten to sixth grade in Midtown Anchorage.
About 80 students either didn’t come to school or went home sick throughout the day on Friday, Barker said. The unusual number of absences prompted the PTA to cancel its potluck on Friday, and a district crew to sanitize the school over the weekend, according to emails from school principal Nuri Johnsen to parents.
“The decision was made out of an abundance of caution to prevent the possible spread of this illness as we head into Thanksgiving week,” she wrote.
By Monday, Rogers Park had about 160 students and 12 employees absent. On Tuesday, the numbers ballooned again: 14 employees and 238 students didn’t go to school. That’s about half the entire student body.
District officials didn’t have information Tuesday on how many of the students absent were sick and how many had stayed home to avoid becoming sick.
The school district isn’t seeing the same rate of absences at other schools this week, according to Morgan DuClos, a district spokeswoman.
In an email to parents, Johnsen said students’ symptoms ranged from a fever to body aches to lethargy to headaches, stomachaches and congestion.
The school district along with city and state health officials launched an online survey this week for parents to describe their children’s symptoms. They’re also using nasal swabs to test a sample of Rogers Park students for the flu and other viruses and bacteria, said Castrodale, the epidemiologist with the state health department.
"At any given time there’s usually a few things circulating in the community, so that’s one of the reasons to look at that broader panel,” she said.
Castrodale didn’t expect to have official results until later this week or early next week.
However, she said, the survey had yielded more than 100 responses by Tuesday morning, and some hints of what made students sick at Rogers Park Elementary.
Castrodale said some parents reported their children went to the doctor and tested positive for the influenza B virus. Plus, some of the symptoms reported such as fever and coughing align with the flu, she said. The state health department has also seen a recent increase in reported cases of influenza B in Alaska.
“It all sort of fits together,” Castrodale said.
The stomach-related symptoms, though, aren’t usually hallmarks of the flu, she said.
“There could be other things circulating,” she said.
Castrodale recommended Alaskans stay home if they’re feeling sick, cover their cough, practice good hygiene and get their flu shot.
The vaccination this year covers four strains of the flu, two type A and two type B, she said.
“It’s the best thing we’ve got,” said Dr. Bruce Chandler, medical officer for disease prevention and control at the Anchorage Health Department.
Influenza B is a type of the flu. It typically has the same symptoms as influenza A, such as a fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose and body aches, Castrodale said. Usually, influenza A hits Alaska first in the late fall and early winter and then a wave of the influenza B virus follows, Chandler said.
“This is another unusual year," he said.
Classes will continue at Rogers Park on Wednesday, Barker said. Crews will again clean the school Tuesday night. They’re wiping every surface from door handles to light switches to computer keyboards, he said.
“It’s as clean as we can make it," he said.
It’s unclear how many students will return to Rogers Park Elementary on Wednesday.
One parent, Natasha Price, said she didn’t expect her 7-year-old son Jack to make it to class. Jack first started showing major symptoms on Monday afternoon.
“He was looking pretty sluggish,” she said. “He looked tired and run down, and he wasn’t acting like his normal, chipper self.”
By Tuesday afternoon, he had a cough, a stuffy nose and had spiked a temperature of 102.8 degrees, she said.
Price said Jack got his flu shot this year, and she’s in contact with his pediatrician. She was told Jack could still get the flu but the symptoms should be less severe.
What’s been most staggering this week, Price said, is how quickly the illness traveled around the school.
“It feels almost like a cruise-ship virus,” she said. “It’s spreading so fast and so localized, so that’s a little worrisome.”