Gastrointestinal disease explodes in Ala. elementary school; 773 kids out


An electron micrograph of norovirus.
Enlarge / An electron micrograph of norovirus.

Officials in Alabama have shut down an elementary school for the rest of the week and are conducting a deep clean after 773 of the school’s 974 students were absent Wednesday amid an explosive outbreak of gastrointestinal illness.

Local media reported that only 29 students were absent from Fairhope West Elementary School on Tuesday. However, the situation escalated quickly on Wednesday as word spread of a stomach bug going around the Gulf Coast school. A spokesperson for the county school district told that 773 students and 50 staff were absent Wednesday. It’s unclear how many of the absences were due to sickness or precaution.

Health officials are now investigating the cause of the gastrointestinal outbreak, collecting specimens for testing. So far, officials are working under the assumption that it is norovirus, a highly infectious gastrointestinal bug that can survive hand sanitizer and transmit easily from surfaces, food, and water. The symptoms of the unidentified illness align with norovirus: vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and nausea.

On Wednesday, Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler sent a message to parents saying that the county had decided to shut the school down for the rest of the week. “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,” Tyler wrote. “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.”

But local outlet WKRG reported Thursday that the outbreak has already spread beyond Fairhope West. On Thursday, 1,231 students from four other area schools were also absent, including 721 students at Fairhope East Elementary School, 136 at a third elementary school, 170 at a middle school, and 204 at a high school. These are in addition to the 974 students at Fairhope West who are out of school while it is shut down.

Norovirus activity is high across the country, with the northeastern region seeing the largest surge, according to surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency notes that outbreaks are commonly linked to health care settings, restaurants or catered events, cruise ships, as well as schools and childcare centers. “Close quarters, shared spaces, and high-touch surfaces make it easy for norovirus to spread in schools,” the CDC points out.

In 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic flipped the script on standard norovirus outbreaks. People who were hoping to avoid close contact and share indoor air with strangers headed to the great outdoors, which led to a large outbreak of norovirus in the Grand Canyon.


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