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Health, Science & Environment

Ohio schools prepare for a return to class amid a rise in respiratory illnesses

Little sick girl is cleaning her nose with a white handkerchief in front of a gray blank wall.
Little sick girl is cleaning her nose with a white handkerchief in front of a gray blank wall.

As kids return to class following winter break, some Ohio schools are taking extra steps to limit the spread of respiratory viruses like RSV, influenza and COVID-19.

Dr. Joseph Bailey is TriHealth's pediatric medical director in Cincinnati and deals with illnesses in kids and teens on a daily basis. He said this year has been a bit different.

Although a high number of kids coming into his office with flu-like symptoms is a regular occurrence around this time of year, Dr. Bailey has seen a noticeable rise in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses in recent weeks.

"This is the flu that we see every year; we're seeing more of it this year," he said. "It probably has to do with the fact that people were not exposed to it the last two years."

Dr. Bailey said the lack of physical contact many people have had since the pandemic has made people more susceptible to catching some of the major respiratory viruses floating around this year.

The Ohio Department of Health said its seen a significant increase in the spread of viruses like RSV, influenza and COVID-19 during the holiday season. The health department wants people to be cautious and stay home if they're feeling sick to avoid spreading any of those illnesses to someone else.

That may be hard to do as many students returned to school buildings this week following the winter break, but some school districts are making plans to prevent an outbreak among students and staff.

Before Thanksgiving last month, Talawanda Schools in Butler County closed all of its buildings for two days in response to a high number of reported illnesses, absences and a lack of substitute teachers to fill in for sick staff.

"We made that decision on a Sunday evening for the Monday and Tuesday the week of Thanksgiving in the hopes of not only closing our schools and getting some extra cleaning done, but also giving people a chance to potentially heal from the illness, so they could still have a Thanksgiving holiday with their families," Talawanda Schools Communications Director Holli Hansel said.

Hansel said the district made the right decision to keep students and staff safe. While she doesn't anticipate Talawanda closing all of its school buildings again after winter break, she said after experiencing the pandemic, more parents have been willing to keep their children home from school if they show signs of an illness.

Dr. Bailey said keeping sick kids at home will be one of the keys to preventing a major outbreak in a school.

"Once the kids are all together, there's a limited opportunity for the school itself to make a difference once they're all in the same room," Bailey said.

Another major factor is preventative care, including good personal hygiene and getting the flu vaccine.

Simple things like washing your hands after sneezing and maintaining a healthy diet to build up immunity can go a long way. Even with healthy habits, Dr. Bailey said getting the vaccine remains the most effective way to avoid the flu, but convincing people to get the shot has been difficult since the issue became politicized during the pandemic.

"Not everybody gets the flu vaccine every year," he said. "They never did and they won't, but some people that used to get it might not be getting it. But the reality of it is the flu vaccine does work and it's a good idea."

For now, school districts said they're doing what they can to fight the flu. Holli Hansel said Talawanda has kept a regular cleaning schedule but has started using a different cleaning solution that's more effective for flu viruses and COVID-19.

Other larger districts, like Cincinnati Public Schools, have shared flu and vaccine information with parents. CPS is also advising students to stay home if they feel sick. They declined to be interviewed for this article.

Dr. Bailey points out that it's important for adults to be aware of flu symptoms to properly identify them and communicate with their child's school if they have an illness.
"We'll all get through this winter together," he said.
Copyright 2023 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Health, Science & Environment EducationOhio Department Of Health
Zack Carreon