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Reported flu numbers remain normal in east Idaho, despite school closures

Health & Fitness

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IDAHO FALLS — A nasty flu bug is going around eastern Idaho, and it appears to be running rampant through many schools.

In the last three weeks, we’ve seen a significant number of school districts take the unprecedented step of closing all of their schools for several days at a time due to large numbers of sick staff and students.

But despite the appearance of a widespread ailment, it’s hard to paint an exact picture of how many people are sick.

Eastern Idaho Public Health officials say flu estimates don’t appear to be abnormally high in the region. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports relatively low flu activity in Idaho.

The problem with these estimates, though, is that no agency tracks influenza or similar respiratory ailments that well.

“Influenza is not a reportable disease in Idaho,” Eastern Idaho Public Health spokeswoman Mimi Taylor tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We have no way to track those numbers. With E.coli or salmonella – if there’s a diagnosis, it has to be reported to us. Influenza is not like that, so we have no numbers.”

It is clear the number of deaths from influenza is down. EIPHD epidemiologist Mike Taylor says six people in Idaho have died this season due to flu-related illnesses – far below last year’s number of 100.

“We’re nowhere, nowhere close to that that this year,” Taylor says.

Also, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare says that during the last week in January (the latest time data was available), the percentage of people reporting influenza-like illness at local clinics was only about 2.43 percent. That statistic may not be accurate, though, as clinics aren’t required to report those numbers.

Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center’s numbers tell a different story. EIRMC spokeswoman Coleen Neimann says the hospital’s emergency room is seeing more people with flu-like systems. They’ve even recently initiated flu-restrictions for visitors.

“In the last few weeks we’ve seen an increase in people with flu-like symptoms coming to the ER for treatment,” she said. “This flu season has hit later in the year, and rather quickly. We’re seeing a more concentrated number of people in the ER than in previous years.”

Neimann said the emergency room has even beat its own record for most patients served in a day — twice — in the last couple weeks.

The large number of school closures also point to higher than normal flu numbers.

Mike Taylor, the epidemiologist, says he’s worked in the area for 16 years, but this year’s school closures have been an anomaly.

“We’ve seen it before — schools closing down (because of illness) — but this many is kind of a new thing for me,” Taylor says.

In the last three weeks, the following districts have closed due to respiratory illness such as influenza: Blackfoot School District 55, Teton School District 401, West Jefferson School District 253, Jefferson School District 251, Snake River School District 52, Shelley-Joint School District 60, Firth School District 59, Clark County School District 161, Fremont School District 215 and Ririe School District 252.

Individual schools in other districts and charter schools have also closed.

Officials in most of the above-listed districts say the closures are due to large numbers of absent students. Most districts started canceling school for several days when the number of absent students rose above 20 percent. That’s usually several hundred students, depending on the size of the district.

West Jefferson Superintendent Dwight Richins told EastIdahoNews.com his biggest problem was the number of sick staff. There simply weren’t enough substitutes to cover for the sick teachers, he said.

But not everyone is seeing large numbers of absent students. Bonneville Joint School District 93 and Idaho Falls School District 91 have not closed any schools, although administrators say they are monitoring conditions.

D91 spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne tells EastIdahoNews.com the number of students reported absent due to illness this week was just under 12 percent throughout the district.

“We’re trying to follow the CDC’s recommendations, so we’re really encouraging students and staff to definitely stay home if they are sick,” Wimborne says. “We are taking (all) the precautions that we can as far as trying to wipe down surfaces more frequently.”

D93 spokesman Phil Campbell says the district’s attendance last week was 90 percent – on par with the school-year average of 94 percent.

“We clean the schools twice a day, and we’ve upped the disinfectant to hospital grade,” Campbell tells EastIdahoNews.com. “We’re taking it very seriously. Our school safety team is monitoring it, and we’re working with the area health district.”

For those districts that have canceled school, there may be changes to the school calendar in the future. But officials say its too early to know what those changes might be.

In the meantime, the staff at the district that has canceled classes are busy sanitizing the schools to prevent future spread of illness. Administrators are also encouraging parents to keep sick kids at home and avoid large gatherings were illness might spread.

“This affects our entire community,” Teton School District Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme said in a news release. “Please take steps to stay home if you are sick and avoid contact with others.”

Click here to see schools that will be closed Friday.

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