Many school nurses across the commonwealth say they’re watching like hawks, but they just aren’t seeing signs of an Enterovirus D68 outbreak here.
"We’re not seeing any symptoms from what the stories we’re seeing on TV and what the kids are presenting, we’re not seeing that,” said Susan Akins, the nurse at Wareham middle school. "We have had quite a few inquiries from parents, but as a general rule there is not the hysteria. They’re just taking it day by day and seeing what, if anything, their children do present.”
Everything is normal at Wellesley Public Schools, says nursing department head Linda Corridan — from the number of school absences to the number of visits to the nurse. And even if students have colds, they’re in class, as long as they don’t have a fever.
“Absolutely, absolutely," Corridan said. "If they’re eating and drinking and feeling well and are afebrile and sleeping well at night and feel like they can maintain a busy day, they should be in school.”
At Boston Public Schools, two students were hospitalized and later returned to their school. District Assistant Director of Health Services Maureen Starck says they didn’t try to identify who the hospitalized students had come in contact with, to track who might have been infected.
"Because they were students that had asthma so they were more at risk, and they had become sick over the weekend," Starck said. "We are in close contact with the Boston Public Health Department, and they felt that with normal cold and flu season coming upon us, that this is not an issue. And unless we got pockets of classrooms that were getting cold symptoms, we don’t normally notify parents every time someone has a cold.”
Officials now say at least four people have died nationwide after contracting Enterovirus D68. The CDC is investigating whether it’s linked to a handful of cases nationwide where children have had sudden paralysis of limbs. But Starck says the virus’ effects, in the vast majority of cases, are mild.
“There’s not as much to be afraid of, I think, as people initially thought,” she said.
Starck says even when students do go to the Emergency Room, they often aren’t tested for Enterovirus D68. Samples have to be sent to the CDC for testing, and there’s a backlog. The state health department advises hospitals only test children admitted to intensive care, says Mass General Hospital pediatric pulmonary chief Bernard Kinane.
"It frustrates parents but you don’t really need to know," Kinane said. "They come in with these symptoms and you generally know what to do. Viral cultures are notoriously slow for coming back. They’re frequently positive after the kid has gone home.”
Kinane says there’s no way to know if someone with Enterovirus D68 will develop polio-like symptoms like muscle weakness until those symptoms manifest.
“It’s very hard to reassure people," he said. "It’s very infrequent, but it does happen, but we’re not even sure with these patients that it’s caused by the enterovirus — we’re just not sure. And now it’s very hard to say if you have muscle disease, there’s no specific treatment for that at this period in time.”
Kinane says it’s true that not testing children probably means some infected with Enterovirus D68 are spreading the illness to others. But he says that happens anyway – Kinane says most patients are contagious long before they ever see a doctor.