Out sick: Students, staff at Willmar's Lincoln Elementary fight flu-like virus

WILLMAR -- Nancy Van Hauen knew something was wrong at Lincoln Elementary in Willmar Wednesday when about 40 students were reported as sick. Some didn't show up for school, but others, Van Hauen said, were vomiting at school.

WILLMAR -- Nancy Van Hauen knew something was wrong at Lincoln Elementary in Willmar Wednesday when about 40 students were reported as sick. Some didn't show up for school, but others, Van Hauen said, were vomiting at school.

The trend continued Thursday, with 70 students reporting sick, and staff members coming down with the same symptoms.

Covering four schools in the district as a licensed school nurse for kindergarten through sixth grade, Van Hauen said it is not uncommon to have 10 to 16 students in a given building sick in a day. But the sudden sickness amongst 40 or so elementary students in one building struck Van Hauen as unusual.

"What I knew immediately is that I need help," she said.

Within hours, Van Hauen had information and assisting personnel from the Kandiyohi County Public Health Department, local medical facilities and the Minnesota Department of Health. After discussing the symptoms with staff members and medical personnel, Van Hauen and the Department of Health were able to come to a conclusion.


"They told me that this sounds very typical of norovirus," Van Hauen said.

The norovirus causes gastroenteritis -- a big word for what is commonly referred to as stomach flu -- causing vomiting and diarrhea in most cases. Although the virus is not life-threatening, it strikes its victims fast and in most cases leaves them feeling more than queasy.

As of Friday, Willmar School District Superintendent Kathy Leedom said numbers were beginning to level off. Lincoln Elementary still reported 30 students of 325 out with symptoms of the virus. Fourteen of the 60 staff members at the school were also out sick.

Letters were sent home with students Wednesday and Thursday discussing the symptoms of the virus and the situation at the school.

"We had a high of 70," Leedom said about absences earlier in the week. "But it's leveling off and that's a good thing."

The high number of staff absentees caused some headaches at Lincoln. "We were pretty prepared," Principal Beckie Simenson said. But, she added, it gave the staff and administration an opportunity to experience a situation involving a large number of staff absences.

Lincoln was able to keep all its classrooms full with substitutes, but Simenson was extremely thankful of the effort Van Hauen put in at the school Wednesday through Friday.

"I cannot tell you how wonderful Nancy Van Hauen was," Simenson said, referring to her quick actions Wednesday. "That communication has been key."


While the virus popped up this week at Lincoln Elementary, the infectious virus has already reared its ugly head across the state and community. Jo DeBruycker, manager of the Health Learning Center at Affiliated Community Medical Centers in Willmar, said she wasn't surprised when Lincoln school reported an outbreak of the virus.

"We have been seeing it within our system for the last three to five weeks," DeBruycker said.

DeBruycker said the virus infects quickly but only lasts for two to three days. While symptoms resemble those of influenza, she reminded that the norovirus is based more on hygiene. "Cleaning is important in this one, she said.

The virus can be spread easily through eating contaminated food, but also through contact with infected people or even touching a surface that contains the virus.

Those already infected with the virus may try the Pepto-Bismol approach, but for those trying to avoid getting sick, DeBruycker made several suggestions. She said this would be a good time to clean the house with disinfectants to prevent any future spread.

Washing hands is also key. DeBruycker said making sure to rinse, lather and rinse again is important. She suggests washing hands thoroughly for 30 seconds from the back of the hand to in between fingers to underneath fingernails.

"Sometimes I think we don't take that time," she said.

Aside from scrubbing, DeBruycker said people who come down with the virus need to stay hydrated. If symptoms continue beyond several days, make sure to see a physician, she said. More information about the virus can also be found on the Centers for Disease Control's Web site at .

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