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Alabama Elementary School Closed After 773 Students Absent in Mystery Gastrointestinal Illness Outbreak

WKRG / YouTube
WKRG / YouTube

A school in Alabama is closed Thursday after almost 800 students were absent amid an outbreak of a gastrointestinal illness that is being investigated by public health officials.

On Tuesday, 29 students missed classes at Fairhope West Elementary School, according to WALA-TV. Overnight, the number rocketed into the hundreds, with half of the school’s staff also absent on Wednesday.

This Vomit Machine Could Purge the Secret to Norovirus

Not all of the 773 students and 50 staff members absent on Wednesday were off because they were sick, Baldwin County Public Schools Spokeswoman Chasity Riddick told AL.com, as parents were told that absences would be excused if they decided to keep their kids home as the sickness spread around the school. Only 201 kids showed up, according to WPMI-TV.

“Due to the amount of staff and students who are absent, the number who are experiencing symptoms, and in an effort to help contain the contagion, we unfortunately need to shut the building down,” Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler wrote in a message to parents announcing that the school would close Thursday and Friday.

“While out, we will be conducting a deep cleaning of the school so when students return next week, it will be sanitized to the fullest extent,” Tyler added. “We understand the inconvenience this may cause and thank you for your understanding. Please take care of yourself and your families.”

In a statement, the Alabama Department of Public Health said it is investigating the “gastrointestinal outbreak” and that the school system is working with health officials. “Nausea and vomiting only are being reported,” ADPH Chief Medical Officer Karen Landers said in a statement. “ADPH Infectious Diseases and Outbreaks staff has distributed specimen collection materials for testing through the ADPH Bureau of Clinical Laboratories.”

Baldwin County Public Schools Health Services Coordinator Alison Rudd told WPMI-TV that symptoms also included diarrhea and stomach pain, adding that it’s fairly common for such illnesses to sweep through schools at this time of year. She said that the school is treating the as yet unconfirmed illness as it would respond to norovirus. “These are the types of illnesses you hear about shutting down cruise ships and so forth,” Rudd said.

Norovirus, which is highly contagious, and other gastrointestinal illnesses can spread quickly through places like cruise ships due to the “amount of group contact” on board, according to the CDC. The agency launched an investigation after a luxury ship making stops in the U.S., the Queen Victoria, was hit by a gastrointestinal illness that left over 150 passengers and crew with symptoms including vomiting and diarrhea.

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