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"Potential disease outbreak" at Virginia high school causes hundreds of students to miss school with flu-like symptoms

Dr. Ashish Jha talks COVID, flu and RSV
Dr. Ashish Jha on three viruses that can overwhelm hospitals this winter 03:47

A Virginia high school will remain open even as hundreds of students continue to stay home because of flu-like illnesses. 

Stafford High School, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia, had a "high number of student and staff illnesses" reported last week, prompting the school to shut down all activities and athletics scheduled from Friday through Sunday, the school said. The school, which has roughly 2,100 students, saw 1,000 student absences on Friday. On Monday, 670 students were absent, and on Tuesday, 526 students — about a quarter of the student population — continued to miss school, the district's chief communications officer Sandra Osborn told CBS News. 

"All other schools remain within normal absence rates for this time of year," Osborn said. "We will continue monitoring the illnesses with the Rappahannock Area Health Department."

On Monday, the school said the Virginia Department of Health recommended that the district's schools remain open and that mitigation measures continue. 

"After consulting with our health department, all activities taking place among Stafford High School students may resume Tuesday," the school wrote on Facebook. "This includes activities such as after school homework or test makeup, clubs, and practices. Athletic practices among Stafford High School students may also resume Tuesday."

Athletic matches between schools, however, are still canceled on Tuesday to "minimize exposure to other schools."

After consulting with our health department, all activities taking place among Stafford High School students may resume...

Posted by Stafford High School on Monday, October 24, 2022

The rampant illness has left some afraid to return to school. 

"My daughter is one of the sick ones," one parent commented on the high school's Facebook page. "Honestly, she is scared to return."

The Rappahannock Area Health District said Monday that it's working with the school district to "investigate a potential disease outbreak" at the high school "after a large number of students called in sick and reported similar symptoms" on Thursday and Friday. 

"Since that time, the school has reported that a number of students have tested positive for influenza A, and more are showing respiratory and gastrointestinal symptoms consistent with the flu," the health district said. 

The announcement came the same day that the state's Department of Health said this year's flu season is "showing concerning, early signs that it may be worse than in recent years." 

"More people are seeking care in hospitals and urgent care centers for influenza-like illness than at this point in previous years, particularly young children aged 0-4 years," the department said. "Virginia health officials encourage everyone aged six months and older to get a flu vaccine this fall, with rare exception."

Outbreaks have been sweeping through schools in other parts of the country as well, with half the students out sick at a San Diego school earlier this month.

Virginia State Health Commissioner Dr. Colin M. Greene urged people get vaccinated against the flu and to take preventative measures, including staying home when sick, using the elbow to cover the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and frequently washing hands. 

The department also warned that respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is also circulating throughout the state. RSV is common in children and cases typically surge from December to February, but this year hospitals in dozens of states are seeing a dramatic uptick.

"Emergency department and urgent care visits with diagnosed RSV have quadrupled and have been rapidly increasing in Virginia's syndromic surveillance system since early September," the department said. "RSV is common and usually causes mild to moderate symptoms in most people but can be very dangerous for young infants or those who are immunocompromised."

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