Flu closes schools, puts hospitals on alert

Brandon Paykamian • Feb 7, 2019 at 6:02 PM

After Elizabethton City Schools closed Thursday and Friday due to illness, there have been concerns about whether other surrounding districts in Northeast Tennessee would follow suit.

The Tennessee Department of Health reported 89 cases of flu-like illnesses in East Tennessee during the week of Jan. 20-26, up seven cases from the prior week.

While schools in Washington County, Elizabethton and other East Tennessee districts have closed due to illness, Unicoi County and Johnson City Schools are still reporting normal attendance in their schools, seemingly unfazed by the spread of flu and flu-like illnesses.

“We are not experiencing a significant number of absences as other districts at this time,” Johnson City Schools spokeswoman Debra Bentley said Thursday morning.

But it’s a different story in Washington County Schools.

“We are experiencing somewhat of an uptick in the number of teachers calling in sick due to flu,” Special Projects Manager Jarrod Adams said.

Director Bill Flanary said student absences are also creeping up as of Thursday. He said schools will be closed Friday. 

“Our student absence rate has crept upward at all schools today. More problematic is that our adult rate of absence, particularly among classroom teachers, went beyond 10 percent at four schools and nearly 10 percent at two others,” he said. “We have been advised by health care officials that the decision to close a school or a school system because of illness should be driven by the absentee rate of staff. I believe we have reached that point.” 

Flanary added he hopes “that we are a healthier Washington County when Monday comes.”

“I have ordered our custodial crews to come in tomorrow anyway. They'll be performing a deeper cleaning protocol than is possible when students are present. We are taking other precautions as well,” he said. 

Aside from schools, Ballad Health has also announced hospital visitation restrictions due to the flu, asking anyone with flu-like symptoms, people younger than 18 or large groups of visitors to refrain from visiting. 

“To keep our patients and our community safe, we’re trying to limit the number of visitors who come into the hospital,” said Jamie Swift, director of infection prevention at Ballad Health. “Since Oct. 1, we’ve seen 944 cases of flu this season, but 475 of those were reported over the last week and a half. So as a precaution, we’ve implemented our enhanced visitation restrictions.”

Since the beginning of this flu season, health officials with the Tennessee Department of Health have urged Tennesseans to visit their local health departments to get vaccinated for the flu during this influenza surge.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza activity in Tennessee as a whole is high, with 43 of 95 counties reporting at least one confirmed case of the flu, not counting other “influenza-like” cases that include fever, sore throat, runny nose, chills, fatigue, cough and an upset stomach.

In addition to flu cases being reported in more than 43 counties, the CDC reports that the percentage of outpatients with influenza-like illnesses visiting the state's sentinel clinic sites was 3.42 percent. The CDC's baseline rate is 2.2 percent. Of the specimens tested for influenza by the Tennessee Department of Health, nearly 6 percent tested positive for influenza viruses.

Since the beginning of this flu season, health department officials have urged Tennesseans to get their flu shots if they have not already been vaccinated. 

"Flu kills, and we expect many more weeks of the annual seasonal flu epidemic ahead in Tennessee, so everyone who hasn’t yet had a flu vaccine should get one now,“ Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner John Dreyzehner said in December.