While the Ohio Department of Health is not calling the present flu outbreak "an epidemic," school medical personnel say they are seeing a higher number of students feeling ill at the Stow and Munroe Falls schools.
The Ohio Department of Health reported Jan. 11 that one Ohio child died from "flu-related illness," and a handful of adult deaths have been linked to the flu, the Associated Press reports. The Ohio Department of Health did not say where the child was from.
Tessie Pollock, a department spokesperson, said the outbreak is "an early start to the flu season."
Flu viruses are "so unpredictable," Pollock said, you do not know what is going to happen.
"We may have reached our peak," she said. "Maybe next week we'll reach our peak or maybe we'll continue to climb."
The Department of Health usually does not see the flu season "peak" until February, Pollock noted.
During last year's flu season there were no reported deaths among children, Pollock said. The year before there was one.
Ohio is among 47 states with widespread flu outbreaks, and health officials blame the flu for at least 20 child deaths nationally, the AP reported.
Flu-associated hospitalizations are running at much higher rates than the last two seasons. The state reports there have been 1,922 since October in Ohio, compared with 86 a year ago and 175 the previous season.
Some hospitals have begun limiting visitors and handing out surgical masks to try to slow the spread, and health officials are urging people to stay home if they are sick and to keep ill children out of daycares and schools.
Regardless of the nationwide trend, Summit County is seeing a notably high frequency of the illness.
"We have high influenza activity in the county," said Margo Erme, medical director of the Summit County Health Department. "We started seeing influenza activity at the end of November, and it's continuing to go up. We do not believe it's peaked yet."
Erme said measures of influenza infections garnered from hospital and emergency room admissions all show increases. Schools, which were out of session over the holidays, have only been back in session for a couple of weeks.
"It doesn't surprise me they're not seeing activity," she said. "That could change one or two weeks from now."
Michele Wilmoth, nurse manager for Akron Children's Hospital's School Health Services, which the Stow-Munroe Falls School District contracts nurse services through, noted that there has been an increase in the amount of children reporting to local schools with flu-like symptoms.
"In comparison with December last year to this year, we have seen a 70 percent increase in the number of students with fever-like illness report to the school clinics in Stow-Munroe Falls City Schools," she said. "What seems to be different about the flu this year is the presentation of students to the clinic with high fevers."
Coincidentally, Superintendent Dr. Russ Jones was unable to comment because he was home battling an illness himself last week, school spokesperson Jacquie Mazziotta said.
Wilmoth emphasized the best way to avoid the flu is by adopting a routine of healthy habits like frequent hand washing and sneezing into elbows instead of hands. Such habits are promoted in the schools through education.
"We teach the kids that an uncovered cough can travel the equivalent of 75 mph, and a sneeze at 100 mph," she said. "Students are encouraged to wash their hands frequently, especially before eating and after coughing, sneezing and blowing their nose."
Wilmoth noted that dispensers of hand sanitizer are prevalent in classrooms, while custodians often spend time washing various surfaces and door knobs.
"We are all doing what we can to minimize the spread of germs," she said.
Wilmoth said she also encourages everyone to get a flu shot, noting that no time is too late as the flu season often stretches into spring.
"And if you are sick, stay home," she emphasized. " For any student who has a fever 100 degrees or higher, we encourage parents to keep the child home and return to school when the temperature has been normal for 24 hours."
Erme noted the current vaccine is designed to protect against three strains of flu including H3N2, which she said has been associated with severe symptoms. Another strain may make its appearance before the season ends some time in May, she added.
"After a couple mild seasons, people are starting to realize influenza is a really nasty disease," she said. "It's quite possible we may see another peak in February or March."
Editor's Note: The Associated Press and News Leader Editor Eric Marotta contributed to this article.
Phone: 330-541-9400, ext. 4179