Schools Try to Allay Fears About Staph

By Daniel de Vise and Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 19, 2007

Parents, concerned about staph infections that have affected 31 students in the Washington region, inundated schools yesterday with calls and flooded Internet lists for information about the antibiotic-resistant strain.

Rumors of an outbreak reached a crescendo in Bethesda when the "Today" show reported on the infection from outside Walt Whitman High School.

"They are using our school as a backdrop to tell the national story, NOT because we have more staph infections!" Whitman Principal Alan Goodwin quickly told parents in an e-mail.

Across the region, school officials sought to allay fears, saying the germ that has worried football coaches and health officers in recent years is only now entering the broader consciousness because of a death in southern Virginia's Bedford County and a wave of news coverage.

Health officers and educators said they don't know how to interpret the flurry of "superbug" reports, which include 14 from Montgomery County, six each from Fairfax and Prince William counties, two each from Howard County and Alexandria, and one from Anne Arundel County. In addition, a teacher at Davis Elementary School in Southeast Washington has been infected. A case of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus has been diagnosed in a D.C. firefighting recruit, but he has been cleared to return to training.

Reports of the staph infection aren't assembled, compared and reported with the same attention as, say, outbreaks of tuberculosis or meningitis, officials said.

Health officials say drug-resistant staph is increasingly common outside of hospitals and is affecting otherwise healthy people more often, particularly football players, whose sport requires skin contact, which is one of the ways staph is spread.

Many of the staph infections are fairly mild, but the virulent strain can turn a cut into a swollen, inflamed and painful wound. At first, such an infection might resemble a pimple, boil or spider bite. If it becomes invasive and potentially serious, symptoms can include fever, chills and shortness of breath. The infection, confirmed through a skin or blood culture, requires treatment with several antibiotics.

Maryland health officials said yesterday that they recorded two MRSA outbreaks in schools this year, two in 2006 and two in 2004. Most cases have involved athletes, officials said.

Christopher Novak, a medical epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health, said the number of MRSA cases has been increasing nationwide, but simple precautions, such as hand-washing, significantly limit the risk of infection. "I think people should be concerned. They should not be fearful," Novak said.

Stan Thomas is among the worried parents. His sons play football at Rockville High School, where there has been one confirmed case of MRSA. He said the death Monday of Ashton Bonds, a senior at Staunton River High School in Moneta, Va., "was an eye-opener for everyone."

Because of the death and concerns, Thomas said, the players stayed after practice one day to wipe down the locker room with disinfectant.

After a game between the Whitman and Clarksburg high school field hockey teams Wednesday night, the players had to be ordered to shake hands, said Board of Education member Patricia O'Neill, who is the mother of a Whitman team member.

Education officials stressed that there is no evidence that most of the infected students were exposed to staph at school. The leaders said that almost all of the cases are isolated. A cluster of six cases in the football program at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring at the start of the academic year was the notable exception.

"We haven't had any kids who have even had to stay at the hospital with this," said Paul Regnier, spokesman for the Fairfax school system. "We catch it early, and it's treatable."

Many parents in the Washington region have seen an advisory about MRSA in recent weeks.

School officials suspect the blitz of letters and e-mails to parents, coupled with news coverage, has led to reports of staph infections that might not have been brought to light.

"We've sent two letters home now. We've put fact sheets on the front page of our Web site," said Anne Arundel schools spokesman Robert Mosier. "I think what's happening is, Mom's going to the principal and saying, 'Jimmy had this back in July.' "

Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, said principals will send letters home to the system's 49,000 students today with a fact sheet about how to prevent the infection.

She said a phone message, called a Connect-Ed, was dispatched to students' homes late last night. The message did not say that an infection has been diagnosed in a teacher.

Iris Toyer, chairwoman of the citywide Parents United group, said she wanted to know why the chancellor did not immediately warn parents about the infected teacher.

"This is not a time to be secret and take things personally," said Toyer, who has two granddaughters in the school district.

Hobson said the city Health Department is cleaning the infected teacher's classroom. Other school systems are responding with a new regimen of sanitation and hygiene.

At T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, students have begun using disinfectant wipes to clean equipment in the weight room between uses. Student athletes across Fairfax are being shown a DVD on the risks of MRSA and taught to have a trainer examine lesions and wounds. Loudoun County school officials keep bottles of hand sanitizer in each classroom and in the cafeteria. And a new policy in Montgomery schools requires that exercise equipment be wiped down with a bleach solution before and after use.

Around the region, students are routinely removed from contact with other students until their cuts can be cultured by a doctor, and no one is allowed back without a doctor's clearance.

"We're very much on top of it," said Jon Almquist, administrator of the Fairfax athletic trainer program. "These things are basically caught at the pimple stage."

Parents are also learning new routines. Ann Marie Ruskin, president of the Herndon High School PTSA, said she plans to remind her children about washing their hands and covering cuts. She said she'll have her son cover the scrape on his arm before he heads to a community football league practice.

"We need to be aware about it but not obsess," Ruskin said.

Staff writers Ian Shapira, William Wan, Debbi Wilgoren and Yolanda Woodlee contributed to this report.

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