Out of 22 students in Scott Jaillette’s daughter’s kindergarten class, only 10 showed up to school one day this week.
“I know the school officials are doing what they can,” the Columbia father of three said. “The flu is very bad this season. But I can’t keep her out of school and protect her from everything. I mean, she’d never go to school.”
In the midst of a much-hyped flu season – the most intense in a decade, health officials say – many Columbia-area schools have seen a spike in student absences this month. But, they say, there’s not an indication the flu has hit them harder this year than in past years.
One Midlands private school, Clarendon Hall, shut down for several days this month to disinfect after an outbreak of the flu among students and staff. Another area private school, Richard Winn Academy near Winnsboro, closed for a day for cleaning after nearly a fifth of its study body was fighting a variety of illnesses.
Area public school districts say the flu hasn’t risen to that level of concern in their schools, though a number of schools have seen enough student absences that they’re now tracking illness cases.
“We are seeing an increase in flu district-wide, like all other school systems,” said Katrina Goggins, a spokeswoman for the Lexington-Richland 5 school district in the Irmo, Chapin, Dutch Fork areas. “However, the numbers of flu cases that have been reported to us this school year are not out of the ordinary from what we see annually.”
The number of recent student absences in the district was not immediately available, Goggins said, but “a few” schools have seen at least 10 percent of their students absent in recent weeks. All of those absences, though, cannot necessarily be attributed to the flu.
In Lexington 2, a smaller district of about 9,000 students in Cayce-West Columbia, about 80 students were diagnosed with the flu over the past two weeks, spokeswoman Dawn Kujawa said.
Several schools in Richland 2 in northeast Richland County also have been “under surveillance” for elevated student absences, spokeswoman Libby Roof said. Specific absence numbers were not immediately available there either, but “anecdotally, it’s not standing out” as a worse-than-normal year, Roof said.
What has stood out about this flu season is the number of hospitalizations and deaths across South Carolina. As of Jan. 20, 46 people, all adults, had died of the flu, according to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
More than 1,700 flu patients have been hospitalized in S.C. this season, including 470 between Jan. 14-20.
The flu is very bad this season. But I can’t keep her out of school and protect her from everything. I mean, she’d never go to school.
Scott Jaillette, father
Those numbers are “alarming” and reason to “really take this seriously,” said Lisa Harmon, Lexington 2’s director of special services, who oversees the district’s nurses.
Nicholas Godfrey’s family has been lucky so far this flu season, but they’re on high alert after three of the four kids came down with the flu last year.
“Early on, we just heard news reports that this is the worst flu ever, that kind of stuff. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I don’t know if that’s just hype,” the Lexington father said.
Besides the weight of caring for a sick family, Godfrey said he dreads the cost of the flu. Last year, the family paid a few hundred dollars for doctor visits and medications because of the flu.
“I hate to say, ‘Oh you’re sick. I can’t believe it costs so much money.’ But that is a real burden to think about,” Godfrey said.
He’s seen friends on social media talk about a preventative medicine, he said, but he has yet to find it in stock at a drugstore.
Some local pharmacies have struggled to maintain their stocks of prescription Tamiflu medication over the past couple weeks, said Lynn Connelly, who’s owned Medicine Mart Pharmacy in West Columbia for 36 years.
On a recent afternoon, “you couldn’t find Tamiflu from here to the hospital,” Connelly said. “We were calling everywhere to try to find it. Nobody was letting any go because their supplies were depleted.”
This year’s flu cases have been more severe than normal, Connelly said, and they’re also seeing a lot of cases of bad colds with symptoms lasting up to three weeks.
“The most important thing and the biggest ammunition we have against it is the flu shot,” he said “It’s still not too late.”
In addition to the flu shot, health care professionals and schools alike are encouraging people to practice good hand-washing habits and, if they are experiencing illness symptoms, to stay away from others.
If a child has had a fever, many schools ask that they be kept home until they’ve been fever-free – without fever-reducing medication – for 24 hours.
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.