Health

Harrietsfield community pulls together to battle suspected norovirus outbreak

Elementary school, community centre bleached top to bottom in response to sick children

Over 100 children suddenly sick over a few days in a small Nova Scotian community   Angel Moore

Children at Harrietsfield Elementary School were suddenly struck with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea last month. Norovirus was the suspected culprit.

The staff at the Harrietsfield-Williamswood Community Centre first heard children were sick on Jan. 27. Cara Ingraham, the centre’s program manager, said many people in the community have young children so word spread.

“We closed on Monday so we could disinfect,” she said. “We cleaned for six hours. No one knows where or when it started; it happened so fast.”

Illness hits elementary school

Harrietsfield Elementary School has 160 students and on Jan. 29, over 100 children were absent.

“I can’t say with certainty that all were ill. We suspect many, if not most were, but there were likely examples where parents (or) guardians kept their children home as a precaution,” Doug Hadley, a spokesperson for the Halifax Regional School Board, said in an email Monday.

The school notified the Nova Scotia Health Authority that children were experiencing nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The school also sent parents a fact sheet about norovirus and a letter informing them of the outbreak. Parents were asked to inform the school if their children developed symptoms.

“It is rare to see so many students absent due to suspected illness,” said Hadley. Last June we had a similar situation at Hammonds Plains Consolidated School; almost 300 students were absent for one day due to a suspected gastrointestinal illness.”

Communicable diseases policy

Unlike the community centre, which is next to the school, Harrietsfield Elementary did not close. This was a concern for many parents, said Brendan Maguire, MLA for Halifax Atlantic.

“I told parents if they did not feel comfortable to keep their kids at home,” said Maguire.

Lesley Mulcahy, spokesperson for Nova Scotia Health Authority, said school closures are decided by the medical officer of health and Harrietsfield Elementary was not ordered to close.

“If a viral illness, such as norovirus, is suspected to be the cause, it is unlikely that a school setting would be closed, as this has never been shown to be a useful intervention for controlling outbreaks of viral gastroenteritis,” said Mulcahy in an email.

Norovirus is a virus that causes inflammation of the stomach that causes sudden vomiting and diarrhea, followed by fever and chills. It is highly contagious and is transmittable through contaminated food, water, surfaces and an infected person. Those infected should stay home 48 hours after symptoms have disappeared.

Community response

According to the school board, teachers volunteered to bleach the school’s surfaces for four hours that Monday night. The next day the school was closed due to bad weather.

Cleaners were sent in by the health authority on both Wednesday and Thursday nights and cleaned for eight hours each time.

Maguire said teachers, the school board and the community centre went above and beyond to handle the outbreak.

“The kids got sick so fast. I mean there is only so much you can do,” said Maguire. “This was a learning lesson for us. Not everyone was aware of the effort that went into the cleanup. Next time we will have better communication, but in the end, everyone pulled together.”

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