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New Richmond Middle School (File photo by Micheal Foley)

Norovirus found to be cause of mystery middle school illness

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The illness responsible for the absence of more than 100 New Richmond Middle School students on Wednesday, June 4, has been identified as the norovirus, according to District Administrator Jeff Moberg.

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Sometimes called the stomach flu, the norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach and large intestine and spreads quickly in closed environments like school buildings. Such was the case for the middle school, as 115 students stayed home with the virus and an additional 40 were sent home throughout the day last Wednesday.

Although none of the other schools in the district experienced a high number of absences, the absentee rate in the middle school ranged from 15 to 30 percent depending on the grade level, Moberg said.

According to Valeri Zart, her seventh-grade son Tyler became ill on Tuesday night. While he didn’t exhibit any other symptoms, Zart said he had vomited four times by morning.

Because just one of her children who attends the middle school had been sick, Zart tried to determine what her two boys had done or eaten differently that day to figure out what could have caused the illness.

“The only difference was that Tyler had milk with his sack lunch on Tuesday and his brother Nicholas, who is an eighth-grader at the middle school, hadn’t,” Zart said. “I’m not sure if that was what caused it, but it is the only difference I can find between them.”

Environmental factors have been ruled out by the St. Croix Health Center, which means the milk or any other food the children might have eaten at school couldn’t be the cause of the sudden sickness. When Zart asked the nurse who called her back why one of her children got sick and the other didn’t, Zart said the nurse told her that Tyler must have been more exposed to the illness than Nick.

Indeed, Moberg said the district had partnered with the custodial staff, school health workers, City of New Richmond Utilities and St. Croix County Public Health by 9 a.m. Wednesday to identify the illness and stop its circulation. Local and state officials inspected the water quality, food quality and carbon dioxide levels in the building, and the maintenance staff completed a thorough cleaning of the school on Wednesday night. By Thursday morning, the number of new infections had fallen to single digits.

“It’s quite remarkable that based upon reports from today, we essentially stopped the spread in its tracks,” Moberg said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “It is our hope that it doesn’t make a comeback.”

While the district waited for tests results from the health department, parents of sick children conferred with one another to try to identify the illness.

“One of the parents I know took their child to the ER because they were feeling so sick,” Zart said. “She said the doctors had no clue what was causing it, since all the tests came back fine.”

Having sent a stool sample from her son to the St. Croix County Health Center on Wednesday, Zart received a call Friday morning informing her that his sickness was caused by the norovirus. The New Richmond School District issued a statement with the same information shortly thereafter.

“I was really impressed with how quickly the school district responded to the problem and tried to find the cause of the illness,” Zart said. “They kept all the parents informed about what they were finding and let us know what was being done at the school to make sure the illness didn’t spread.”

While the norovirus appears to be contained, its sudden onslaught resulted in the cancellation of a few end-of-the-year festivities for NRMS students, including The Amazing Race and Valleyfair field trips.

"It was unfortunate that student trips needed to be canceled, but it was the responsible decision to not spread this throughout other schools or the community,” Moberg said in a final statement Thursday afternoon. “I would like to commend the middle school staff for their professional approach and quick reorganizing to create events for all of our middle school students. They did a fantastic job in a short window of time.”

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UPDATE (3:30 p.m., Friday, June 6): District Administrator Jeff Moberg released the following statement this afternoon stating that it has been confirmed that the illness which struck the middle school this week was in fact the norovirus:

"We had a very low number of absences district wide today due to illness.

"The state lab has confirmed that norovirus is the cause of illness impacting a number of students.  Norovirus can spread quickly and only takes a small amount of particles to make an individual ill.  Norovirus can be spread in many ways and proper hand washing is still one of the best ways to prevent person to person transmission.   It spreads quickly in closed places and can live on hard surfaces for up to two weeks.  The cleaning solution recommended by the CDC to kill the virus on surfaces is about 1 to 1 ½ cups of bleach to a gallon of water.   After a thorough review and investigation the department of health does not believe the source of the virus originated in any environmental factors in the middle school including our food, air, or water.

"The school will continue to aggressively clean all buildings over the next couple of days to help stem the transmission of the virus.

"Thanks again to everyone who assisted in diagnosing the cause of illness and in planning our response.  It appears that the quick response and aggressive cleaning has helped control further spread of this virus."

See next week's New Richmond News for more information and a full story on this subject.

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UPDATE (10:45 a.m., Thursday, June 5): District Administrator Jeff Moberg released the following statement this morning in regards to the flu-like illness that caused a large number of middle school students to be absent from school on Wednesday, June 4:

"It appears that the number of new cases of illness at the middle school has fallen to single digits. Thanks in large part to a great response from school personnel, the city and public health we don't have many new cases today. Thanks as well to parents that held their child home if experiencing symptoms, those actions greatly helped us stop the continued spread of this illness. We have low numbers of students ill today as well in each of the other buildings. Again, to help prevent the spread of this, we need students to remain at home 48 hours past being symptom free.

"Again, after checking water quality, air quality and food service, it appears that the root of the illness is some type of stomach virus. We would need definitive testing results back from the state lab to confirm, but at this point, it appears it is merely some type of stomach flu.  We hope to have those results by Friday afternoon. Yesterday, we had about 150 students absent, and it looks like about 125 were due to this stomach flu.

"Again, I would like to extend thanks to our custodial staff, middle school staff, food service, city officials and county and state public health workers for their support and resources in addressing this situation. We began extensive cleaning measures and testing right away in the morning and that helped us quickly eliminate possible causes and also stop the further spread of the sickness. It's quite remarkable that based upon reports from today, we essentially stopped the spread in its tracks.  It is our hope that it doesn't make a come-back.

"To summarize, we started yesterday morning with about 115 absences due to reported stomach flu, during the course of the day another 10-15 students went home not feeling well and another 25 went home at parent's request. By 9 a.m. we had a coordinated response with our maintenance and custodial staff, school health workers, city utilities and public health.  The response included monitoring of our air quality, water testing, a review of food storage/serving procedures, and an intensified cleaning schedule that required additional staffing with a disinfectant solution. The procedures went into place nearly immediately.

"It was unfortunate that student trips needed to be canceled, but it was the responsible decision to not spread this throughout other schools or the community. I would like to commend the middle school staff for their professional approach and quick re organizing to create events for all of our middle school students. They did a fantastic job in a short window of time.

"Again, I would like to thank the parents for their support in keeping ill children home, the city staff, the public health staff and our school staff who assisted. It was excellent team work that helped control the spread."

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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UPDATE (4 p.m., Wednesday, June 4): More than two dozen New Richmond Middle School students were sent home Wednesday after exhibiting flu-like symptoms. New Richmond School District Superintendent Jeff Moberg said he doesn’t believe the issue is environmental, as tests did not detect anything in the food, water or air. No other schools within the district have experienced high absences.

According to Moberg, the absentee rate ranged from 15 to 30 percent, depending on the grade level. About 100 students did not report to school, and an additional 30 went home throughout the day. After extensive food, water and air testing, school officials have determined the issue is likely some kind of virus.

Moberg said that while the school has already inspected the kitchen and carbon dioxide levels, it will continue to coordinate a response with local and state public health. Moberg said he hopes to know more after a thorough cleaning of the middle school and further testing.

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ORIGINAL POST:

A significant number of New Richmond Middle School students were sick with flu-like symptoms on Wednesday and the school district is still investigating the cause, according to the following statement by district administrator Jeff Moberg:

"We are experiencing a high number of absences due to stomach flu like symptoms at our middle school.  At this point, we are only seeing the high illness rate at that building.

"The school has been proactive and is coordinating with county and state health departments and city officials to maintain safety and identify the root cause of the issue.  While we continue to test and review data, initial results do not indicate that it is food or water related, but we continue to do additional testing and monitoring.  The air quality in the building was measured and our CO2 levels are low, indicating that our fresh air system is functioning normally; however, we have increased our fresh air supply to continually circulate new air into the building.  The school is continuing to work with public health and city officials to determine the root cause of the illness and is asking for help from parents to help control the spread of any illness.   Again, the school has coordinated with city and county officials and continues to test food and water sources, although initial results do not indicate that it is food or water related.  We will continue to work with public officials to identify the source of illness.  If you have a child that is ill, you may receive a call from county health officials and we ask your cooperation in answering questions to help determine the cause of these illnesses.

"We are asking that any student experiencing flu like symptoms remain at home for 48 hours after they are symptom free to avoid further spread of any illness.   We will remain in contact with public health and city officials as we work to identify the source of illness.  We are bringing in extra cleaning crews throughout the day and evening and will follow the cleaning procedures identified by the department of public health.

"Please follow stringent hand washing guidelines using warm soapy water, hand wash frequently, and remain at home should you feel any flu like symptoms."

This article will be updated as more information becomes available.

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Jenny Hudalla
A senior at Bethel University, Jenny Hudalla is pursuing degrees in journalism, Spanish and reconciliation studies. Having graduated from New Richmond High School in 2011, she served as editor-in-chief of the Tiger Rag before taking a job as editor-in-chief of Bethel's student newspaper, The Clarion. After completing her internship with the New Richmond News, Hudalla plans to move on to a career in social justice.
(715) 243-7767 x253
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