HOUGHTON - Several local school districts have recently cancelled classes due to illness outbreaks, and while the severity of individual cases isn't too concerning to local officials, the high number may be an indicator of an earlier flu season.
"It's not so much how sick, but just the fact that large numbers of kids are sick," said Dr. Teresa Frankovich, medical director of the Western Upper Peninsula Health Department. "When facing very high numbers of absent children, districts contact the health department and we consult with them. It's ultimately their decision to close."
L'Anse Area Schools dismissed today once again at 11:55 after high school illness absences approached 30 percent this morning, and elementary numbers surpassed 40 percent, with some classes even exceeding 50 percent. The district had already been out all day Tuesday and Wednesday and dismissed at 11:55 Monday morning.
"This has certainly been a difficult time for all," Superintendent Ray Pasquali said. "I was hoping with the two days we had off that things would improve."
Pasquali said the evidence is there to point to illness still being the issue instead of people possibly intending to start their holiday break early. The district will resume classes Jan. 2 after the break.
"We feel confident we've made the right decision on behalf of our community," he said.
Baraga Area Schools was closed Dec. 6-7 due to illness, and Arvon Township Schools, Sacred Heart School, Stanton Township Schools and BHK L'Anse Center also faced illness-related closures.
Districts cannot officially count a school day by state-reporting standards if district-wide attendance drops below 75 percent.
"The bottom line is one of the questions out there is, is this influenza? It's not certain," Frankovich said. "We have been seeing quite a bit of influenza, and local hospitals have reported positive flu tests, however, lots of other viruses circulate this time of year. ... It's certainly arrived earlier, about a month early."
According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, 63 cases of the flu had been reported as of last Thursday, up from 34 the previous week, numbers typically seen in the peak months of January and February. While the numbers are only lab-confirmed cases, and the actual number is much larger, the standard measure helps portray trends, according to Frankovich.
The numbers fall in line with increases in national flu activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control, with 48 states and Puerto Rico reporting confirmed cases of influenza.
The MDCH's regional report shows statewide percentages of hospital visits due to influenza-like illness at about 1.5 percent, while over the past month, Michigan's northern region (northern third of lower peninsula and entire Upper Peninsula) has been at 3.4 percent.
Frankovich emphasized that prevention is key, and the current vaccine matches about 90 percent of strains circulating.
"We're still encouraging people; as long as the flu is circulating, it's worth getting vaccinated," she said, noting that young children, pregnant women, senior citizens and those with chronic health conditions are most at risk.
In addition to getting vaccinated, Frankovich said it's also important to wash hands frequently, cough into sleeves instead of hands, dispose of tissues and stay home when ill.
Most local health providers and the health department have vaccines available. If anyone has difficulty finding one, Frankovich advised calling the health department at 482-7382.