Forty Colorado schools are closed now until next month following the outbreak of an unidentified, highly contagious virus that has caused a “significant” number of students and staff to fall ill.
The closure comes after more than a dozen schools saw an increase in absentees and “several instances of vomiting in public areas.” It remains unclear as to what prompted the initial illness, but its quick onset of symptoms – sometimes within just an hour – and level of contagion has led health experts to point toward norovirus. A second virus now appears to be making the rounds, according to the school district.
“We are taking this highly unusual action because this virus is extremely contagious and spreading quickly across our schools,” said D51 Nursing Coordinator Tanya Marvin in a statement. “In addition, it appears that there is now a second, related virus that is affecting students, some of whom have already been ill in recent weeks. The combination of the two has created an unprecedented spread of illness.”
One of the illnesses acts like norovirus and lasts between 12 and 24 hours. Norovirus is a highly contagious illness and encompasses many different types of strains. The virus sheds billions of particles but only requires a few to make people sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Just one gram of diarrhea from someone with norovirus can have 5 billion viruses, and a person may become infected by coming into contact with just 20 of those viruses, notes the Mesa County Public Health (MCPH). Norovirus is found in the poop or vomit of an infected person and can be spread by coming into contact with it by touching someone who is contaminated, consuming infected food or water, or touching contaminated surfaces.
Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, stomach pain, fever, headache, and body aches, and typically develop within 12 to 48 hours after being exposed, the CDC notes. However, a person may be carrying it even before they start to feel sick and it can remain in their feces for two weeks or more even after feeling better. There is no vaccine, and treatment typically includes replacing fluids lost through vomiting and diarrhea to prevent dehydration. The CDC advises that the best way to prevent infection is to avoid those who are infected and areas where they have been, as well as washing hands and practicing good hygiene.
The school district says that it has never had to close all of its schools due to illness and this “rare” step is meant to ensure that custodial crews and environmental health and safety teams are able to properly clean the school buildings, which serve nearly 3,000 employees and serves 22,000 students, according to the D51 homepage.
"The decision to close is the right move,” Mesa County Public Health Executive Director Jeff Kuhr said in a Tweet. “Past experience with these types of viruses tell us having a period of time away from close person-to-person contact can be instrumental in these illnesses running their course. This will give those buildings a window to disinfect and start fresh after the Thanksgiving Holiday.”
MCPH says that it does not track each individual case and is unclear as to what percentage of staff and students are impacted, but notes that this illness is unique in its rapid onset of symptoms and high level of contagion. Medical professionals in the area are asked to take stool samples from possibly infected patients so that laboratory tests may determine the virus.