On December 10, 2012 the Health Department got a report from Shelly Millis, Superintendent of the Montebella Schools, that 180 children and teens were out sick with flu-like symptoms. Some had tested positive for influenza types A and B. Our Medical Director, Dr. Robert Graham recommended that the schools close to halt the further spread of the illness. (This was a recommendation to the Superintendent who made the decision herself. It was not a case of the Health Department ordering the school to close.)
Ten days later, on December 20th the same thing
happened at Central Montcalm schools. With 259 students out, Superintendent Kristi Teall made the
decision to send everyone home. Coincidentally this was the same week some
schools were dealing with gun rumors in the wake of Sandy Hook shootings.
Why did the flu spread so fast in these schools? We used data from the Michigan Immunization Registry to
examine the influenza immunization status of the students in the Montebella
Schools. Only 22 percent of the
elementary age students had up-to-date flu shots, and only 4 percent of the middle
and high school age students did. Four percent!
With so few students protected against the flu, it’s no
wonder things got out of hand so fast.
Very few students had any level of immunity so the virus spread easily. We are used to thinking of the decision to get a flu shot as an
individual choice. But getting a shot is a much about protecting others as it is
about protecting ourselves. Everyone’s lives in those two schools were
disrupted because they didn’t have “herd immunity”.
This is discouraging. The Health Department used to give thousands
of flu shots every year, but now it is down to around 1,000 per year and
falling fast. Now that so many pharmacies give flu shots, we hope people are
going there to get their shots, but maybe that is not working as well as we
hope it will.
By the way, the flu is here in earnest. In the graph below from the CDC, the red line
is the percentage of people showing up at emergency rooms with flu-like
symptoms. It is headed up fast meaning an early, and probably pretty intense flu
It’s not too late to get a flu shot. If you get
one tomorrow it will kick in in about two weeks. But the flu season should
last at least 10 more weeks so it should be worth it.