School Officials In Colorado Aim To Stop A Fast-Moving Outbreak

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Twenty-two thousand students in Colorado are out of school early this Thanksgiving break, as school officials try to stop this really fast-moving outbreak that has affected several communities there. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg reports on how the local health department is hoping that closing an entire school district can help stop the gastro intestinal illness from spreading.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Investigators think norovirus is to blame for what some people are calling the Palisade plague after the small desert town where it first appeared nearly two weeks ago. It didn't take long for people across Mesa County to start getting sick. In nearby Grand Junction, Michael Acord was pushing 5-year-old Blakely on a swing Friday afternoon.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEG: Acord is watching six kids, his wife's young siblings, who would have been in school if it weren't for the outbreak.

MICHAEL ACORD: I have to miss work for this, you know, to help out. And this makes it kind of hard.

SIEG: But despite the hassle, Acord understands the districtwide closure. He feels lucky his family has stayed healthy so far.

ACORD: We're, you know, trying to keep everybody afloat and, you know, just keeping them from getting sick.

SIEG: And a lot of people are getting sick. First, a high school temporarily closed. Then a middle school. Then an elementary. Then another. The local health department estimates that, over the last two weeks, about 2,000 students have had symptoms, and they say that number could still double or more. School district spokesperson Emily Shockley says it became clear last week.

EMILY SHOCKLEY: You know, there would have to be some kind of bigger measure, and that was to close all the schools.

SIEG: All 46 of them, both for deep cleaning and simply to get kids away from one another - basically, starting the weeklong Thanksgiving break two days early. Shockley believes it's the first time the district has ever completely closed due to illness. And if it hadn't affected so many youngsters...

SHOCKLEY: Or maybe it had just been isolated to one or two schools, we probably wouldn't have had to do this. But since it wasn't, we had to make that hard decision.

SIEG: A choice the head of the local health department was happy to see. Jeff Kuhr says he doesn't know how the outbreak started, but...

JEFF KUHR: Now my job is to make sure this doesn't get super widespread in Mesa County beyond the schools.

SIEG: Kuhr is warning residents and businesses to take precautions, including cleaning with bleach solutions, because otherwise norovirus can live on surfaces for weeks. But as hardy as norovirus is, it's also extremely common, with hundreds of outbreaks a year across the country. Another Colorado school district has a possible outbreak of it happening now, too.

KUHR: Just think about all the ships that you hear about on the news, all the cruise ships that have to turn around and come back home because, gosh, almost the entire passenger roll gets affected by this thing.

SIEG: A thing that's uncomfortable and inconvenient but not usually dangerous. Kuhr says a state lab will determine whether Mesa County's outbreak truly is norovirus within the next week or two. But regardless of the result, his most important piece of prevention advice will remain the same - wash your hands.

For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Grand Junction, Colo.

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