By Rachel Hicks
This year’s flu season came early and hit hard. Schools, students and parents in Rockbridge County are struggling to stop the spread of this seasonal invader.
“Our nurse goes around and disinfects the doors and light switches,” said Holly Chaos, a kindergarten teacher at Central Elementary School. “We all had handwashing lessons and talked about sneezing into our sleeve because it’s really hard on everyone if the teachers get sick.”
Central Elementary School confirmed that 17 students were out of school on Monday with the flu.
Other schools in the district are sending kids home sick. Penni Allen, the clinical coordinator for Rockbridge County Public Schools, said more than 50 students in the district were absent with the flu this week.
Em Stephens, the Virginia Department of Health’s influenza surveillance coordinator, said the main culprit in this year’s sickness is a string of the flu called H3N2.
The H3N2 virus is difficult to treat with vaccines, and children born after 2001 have little to no immunity against it, according to a Jan. 31 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
Since Oct. 1, there have been 53 pediatric deaths nationwide, according to the CDC, and one pediatric death in Virginia, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
The Rockbridge area is nine weeks into the flu season, which can last 13 weeks, according to the Virginia Department of Health.
Sarah Hennis, a sophomore at Rockbridge County High School, said her symptoms were so bad that she had to go to an urgent care clinic, which provides walk-in healthcare.
“I basically couldn’t move without my body hurting,” she said. “I had a really high fever which lasted for two days.”
There were 30 students absent from RCHS on Wednesday alone because of the flu.
“The school isn’t really doing anything that I know of to prevent the spread of the flu,” said Rachel Maxwell, a junior at Rockbridge County High School. “Some people have even come to school feeling terrible because they don’t want to miss class.”
Maggie Lovett, who has one child in Harrington Waddell Elementary School and one in Shenandoah Preschool, said she worries that children are bringing the flu home with them.
“We are doing a lot of things around here [like washing our hands] so that we don’t get the flu,” Lovett said. “I am terrified of [getting sick] because I’m going to have a baby in three weeks.”
There have been several requests for flu shots, according to the Lexington health department, but supply is barely meeting demand, according to an employee at the health department.
CVS pharmacist Lindsey Loy said the pharmacy on Nelson Street has a few flu shots left in stock.
She said the pharmacy employees have probably administered more than 2,000 flu shots.
Loy said for the past two weeks the pharmacy has been selling 40 to 50 prescriptions daily of Tamiflu, an antiviral medicine to treat the sickness.
College campuses in Lexington are also struggling to keep the virus at bay.
David Copeland, the physician at the Virginia Military Institute, said he’s seen about 40 students with flu-like symptoms this year.
“This year’s flu shot has not been great at preventing the flu,” he said. “But the ones that got the flu shot had milder symptoms.”
Matthew Crance, a physician’s assistant at the Washington and Lee University student health center, said 171 cases of the flu have come through his office since classes started in January.
Stephens, the influenza surveillance coordinator at the Virginia Department of Health, said it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
“The best way to prevent the flu is to get your flu shot. It takes about two weeks to take effect, but we think flu season will last for at least another two weeks,” she said. “If you are sick, you need to stay at home and not go to work or to school.”
There will be a free flu vaccine clinic at the Lexington health department at 300 White St. from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 9. The clinic will provide vaccinations on a first come, first served basis until the supply runs out, representatives of the health department said.