Intestinal and respiratory viruses that cause flu-like symptoms are sweeping the Baltimore area, causing misery to thousands and infecting so many students at three Roman Catholic schools in the city in the past week that they were forced to cancel classes.
Health officials say that the ailment responsible for most people's fevers, upset stomachs, runny noses and that general feeling that they've been hit by a Mack truck is not influenza, which is an acute viral respiratory illness.
Neither antibiotics nor flu shots will work against the rhinoviruses that are the main culprits, said Dr. Peter Beilenson, city health commissioner. The illness should be treated with common sense, fluids, lots of rest and acetaminophen, such as Tylenol, he said.
Many Baltimore-area students are taking that advice. Absentee rates that are higher than normal have been reported at many schools. But none has been hit harder than Catholic High School, which was closed yesterday and remains closed today; the Institute of Notre Dame, which canceled classes yesterday; and Mercy High School, which was closed Friday.
Officials at Notre Dame said they decided to cancel classes yesterday after more than a quarter of the students called in sick on Monday.
Mercy High School closed on Friday -- something that has not happened in at least 20 years -- after 144 of its 500 students didn't show up the previous day, said Amy Gibson, the school's director of public relations. "This is an extraordinary occurrence," she said.
Officials in Central Maryland's public school systems reported elevated absentee rates, but no schools were closed.
Baltimore County affected
The ailment has hit hard in Baltimore County, where 10 schools reported absentee rates higher than 10 percent on Monday. Yesterday, more than 10 schools reported absentee rates between 10 percent and 23 percent. Usually, two to four schools report rates that high this time of year, said schools spokesman Donald I. Mohler III.
The reported cases seem to be spread evenly across the county, instead of concentrated in pockets, said Michele O. Prumo, the county's coordinator of student and employee health services. Teachers seem to be affected, too.
"Almost everyone I talk to now has colds," Prumo said.
In Baltimore City public schools, only Northeast Middle School reported enough sick students and faculty to prompt a city health department inquiry. On Thursday and Friday, an estimated 100 students -- out of an enrollment of 1,000 -- and 11 adults were home sick.
Anne Carusi, principal of college-prep, all-girls Western High School, said it experienced a precipitous drop in attendance right after Thanksgiving. Carusi said she ordered spot calls to absent students' homes to find out what was going on.
"What we found was that either they were sick to their stomach, really bad, or they had the kind that makes you hang your head and drag," Carusi said.
The infections appeared to have hit after the holiday and then took hold by Friday, so hard that "parents were coming in in shifts to pick up their kids." The staff began using antiseptics to wipe down telephones and opening windows a crack to improve ventilation, she said.
Other city schools have been spared the ravages of the flu season and are crediting luck -- and old-fashioned prevention.
At Moravia Park Primary, where "we can wipe noses as fast as anybody," only a few of the 650 students and staff members have missed school, said Principal Mary D. Tridone. "My desk is laminate, so I'm looking for a piece of wood to knock on."
She keeps alcohol swabs near telephones to wipe them down to keep germs in check.
Howard County teachers
Some school systems seem to be healthy, at least for the moment. There were no reports of rampant student absences in Howard County schools yesterday, but the number of teachers out sick was higher than usual, school officials reported.
Yesterday, 137 teachers called in sick, said Suzy Zilber, a Howard County school official. Typically, about 100 teachers are absent because of illness each day in the 2,770-teacher system.
"With 137 out, that's pretty high," said Zilber, who herself just recovered from a bout with the flu.
No public schools in Anne Arundel County have reported absentee levels above 10 percent, but at Archbishop Martin Spalding High School in Severn, 90 of 830 students were out sick on Monday and 79 were out yesterday, said school nurse Kathy Sanders.
In Carroll County, five schools had between 10 percent and 12 percent of their students absent on Monday, no more than what's typical for this time of year, said Margaret Hoffmaster, coordinator of health services. Yesterday, three of those schools again reported absences of more than 10 percent.
Although most of what people call the "flu bug" is not the flu, 22 cases of influenza have been confirmed so far this season in Baltimore, said Dr. Penny Borenstein, assistant city health commissioner. Those cases have been associated with schools, nursing homes and day care centers, she said.
The season's first case of influenza in Maryland was confirmed in a 17-year-old in Anne Arundel County in mid-October. Nationwide, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza has generally been on the rise, but stayed within expected levels for this time of year.
Not too late for flu shots
Health officials said it is not too late for people to get flu shots, which would protect them against influenza-A, the strain that is prevalent throughout the region. The elderly and those with chronic illnesses are advised to get shots.
"People who can't afford to lose time from work" may want to get shots, too, Beilenson said. "It's certainly a reasonable thing to do, and it's still appropriate to get it."
Pub Date: 12/11/96