Schools seeing empty seats

Dozens catching colds

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— With all of the sick children and employees these days at Strawberry Park Elementary School, receptionist Marybeth Johnson is doing everything in her power to stay healthy.

"I don't let anyone touch my phone in here," she said.

Strawberry Park has had an average of 42 children call in sick every day in the past two weeks. Some of those students have missed at least a week of school.

Strawberry Park isn't the only place being plagued by recent cold bugs. A number of viruses and infections have been running rampant in recent weeks in the Yampa Valley, depleting the work force and emptying classrooms.

Mary Williamson, an administrative assistant at the Lowell Whiteman Primary School, said of the 50 students in kindergarten through eighth grade at the school, 20 have been absent in the past week. Of the school's five full-time teachers, three were out last week.

At Steamboat Springs Middle School students were suffering from strep throat and the flu throughout the past couple of weeks, said Principal Sandy Hall.

"For the last two weeks or so we are probably running about twice our normal rate (of absences)," Hall said.

Some of the students diagnosed with the flu have missed a full week or more, Hall said.

Patsy Ford, a public health nurse from the Visiting Nurse Association, said the influenza virus is one of the culprits for the barrage of absences. After going for much of the winter without many documented cases of the flu, the VNA recently began treating a number of people for the virus in the past two weeks. Some of those people have had to miss a week to 10 days of work while recovering, she said.

Ford said the height of the season often hits the county in January or February.

"It seems like it's just hitting Steamboat now and it may be here for awhile," Ford said.

The VNA still has flu shots available, though it has stopped offering extra clinics.

The stomach flu, said Ford, is not really "the flu." The real flu (short for influenza) attacks the respiratory system and can progress into pneumonia or other serious respiratory illnesses to the point where it becomes life-threatening.

Influenza kills 40,000 people each year and costs Americans $12 billion a year in lost work days and medical expenses, according to information from the Outreach Program at University Hospital in Denver.

Like schools, businesses in Steamboat Springs have had fewer bodies inside their buildings in recent weeks.

F.M. Light and Sons, for instance, had three people call in sick this week. That's about 25 percent of the work force at the downtown clothing retailer. Because the employees were out at different times and are from different store departments, it didn't hurt the store's business, said supervisor Patty Lindley.

The city was not affected as drastically as other institutions, said human resources director John Thrasher. Thrasher theorized that many city employees may be less apt to get sick because they have somewhat less contact with the public than do employees at other businesses.

The elderly also may have escaped the brunt of the first onslaught of widespread sickness this winter, according to Shelley Orrell of the Routt County Council on Aging. Orrell said her organization usually sees an increase in the number of meals it delivers to people's homes when more elderly people are sick, but this year the number has stayed consistent.

"We really haven't had an increase in home-delivered meals," she said. "Sometimes you just see a whole rash, but we haven't."

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