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Colorado Springs-area schools bracing for possible flu onslaught

January 29, 2018 Updated: January 30, 2018 at 8:41 am
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photo - Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in partnership with Westside Cares held a free flu shot clinic at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018. Five-year-old Kasche Williams gets his flu shot from nurse JoBeth Wachtman. Colorado's influenza season has been a tough one this year. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)
Penrose-St. Francis Health Services in partnership with Westside Cares held a free flu shot clinic at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Sunday, January 28, 2018. Five-year-old Kasche Williams gets his flu shot from nurse JoBeth Wachtman. Colorado's influenza season has been a tough one this year. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette) 

This season's aggressive, deadly flu bug hasn't hit Pikes Peak region public schools as hard as in other states, where large-scale closures are being utilized to block its spread. But local schools are taking precautions and bracing for a possible onslaught of sick kids.

"It seems like if we don't prepare we'll be in trouble, and if we do prepare maybe we'll be spared," said Allison Cortez, spokeswoman for Academy School District 20, the region's second-largest district with 25,831 students.

District officials are discussing "the best plan of action should we see a spike in illness that would prevent us from operating normally," she said.

To date, the flu epidemic, which has killed at least 37 children nationwide and forced closures of schools in at least 12 states, has not impacted D-20, Cortez said.

"So far, we are just seeing the normal patterns of winter illness, nothing out of the ordinary," Cortez said.

The same goes for Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Monument.

"We do have some confirmed cases, but it's not too bad at our sites at this point," said district spokeswoman Julie Stephan. "We do not seem to have the huge impact from influenza as other states."

In fact, one of the district's nurses said she has not noticed as many cases this year as last year, Stephan said.

The El Paso County Health Department registered a record 371 flu cases last year.

School nurses in Colorado Springs School District 11, which has the region's largest enrollment of 27,427 students, are "seeing an increase in flu or flu-like symptoms when parents call in" to excuse their children from school, said district spokeswoman Devra Ashby.

In the past two weeks, schools in Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia have reported massive absences and school closures ranging from a day to a week, due to flu-related illness among staff and students.

The greatest incidents locally are occurring in children under age 10 and adults 65 and older, said Danielle Oller, spokeswoman for El Paso County Public Health.

Hospitalizations are climbing at UCHealth's two hospitals. As of Monday, 184 flu-related patients were at Memorial Hospital Central and Memorial Hospital North, said spokeswoman Cary Vogrin. That's compared to 82 hospitalizations last year at this time and up from 173 patients on Friday. About 13 percent are pediatric patients, she said.

The numbers "do not include the many people who have been treated by a primary care provider, urgent care or the emergency department for the flu but were not admitted," Vogrin said.

At Penrose-St. Francis Health Services'' Penrose Hospital and St. Francis Medical Center in Colorado Springs, confirmed flu cases have decreased from 41 the week of Jan. 1-7 to 27 last week, according to spokeswoman Andrea Sinclair. One person died at Penrose Hospital the week of Jan. 8-14.

In light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's prediction that this year's H3N2 strain will heighten in upcoming weeks, deep-cleaning protocol is in effect at schools to help keep the spread of germs at a minimum.

In Lewis-Palmer D-38 classrooms, hand sanitizer is "as widely available as possible," along with disinfectant wipes, Stephan said.

At its high schools, desk tops, table tops and door knobs are being cleaned nightly, she said.

"It's more than the normal rotation," Stephan said. "We're being proactive, taking precautionary measures very seriously and going to do our part to keep kids safe."

Staff, students and parents throughout Academy D-20 soon will receive a one-page tip sheet on how to stay healthy during flu season, Cortez said.

"We've dealt with outbreaks like this before - a few years ago there was H1N1 - so we have experience to call upon," she said. "We're pulling out those plans, making sure they worked and building upon those."

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