With Ebola stirring worry after appearing in the U.S., health staff in Montgomery County Public Schools have developed a plan to address any suspected case of the virus in a student.
One part of that plan includes a new question for parents of students who have a fever and other signs of the virus: Where have you traveled recently?
Students with a fever greater than 100.4 degrees along with another symptom of Ebola will now prompt health staff to ask parents whether they, their child or any close contacts have traveled from West or Central Africa in the past 21 days, said Mary Anderson, a Montgomery County Health and Human Services spokeswoman.
Other symptoms of the virus include diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pains, head ache and unexplained bleeding or bruising, said Joan Glick, senior administrator for school health services at the county health department.
It’s standard practice for health staff to call a parent when a student has a fever so he or she can be picked up. Glick said health staff won’t ask about travel history if there’s only a fever.
“The fever needs to accompanied with the other symptoms,” she said. “The fever alone is not usually indicative of the Ebola virus.”
The county also has developed a plan should a parent answer yes to that question.
If a student, parent or close contact has recently traveled to a country affected by the virus outbreak — Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone — the student would be isolated in the school.
Glick said that county health officials are recommending that staff at each school use the health room as an isolation facility, but the staff are able to decide the best location in each school.
The health staff would also contact the county health department’s Disease Control and Epidemiology program, Anderson said. Either through a school visit or by phone, disease control staff would talk with a parent and perform a risk assessment to determine whether or not it would be necessary to take the student to a local hospital.
“Just traveling to these countries does not mean you were exposed to anybody who had the disease and you can only catch it when someone is actively ill with the Ebola symptoms,” Glick said.
Anderson said the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would make the call as to whether or not a student would be tested for the virus.
“We have not needed to implement this at all to date,” Glick said.
Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the county school system, said in an email that some parents have called the school system to ask if there are procedures in place.
“We are making sure they know what protocols are in place should a student or staff member present with symptoms that could indicate Ebola, but are, of course, similar to other, more common illnesses as well,” he said in the email.
Anderson emphasized that Ebola is “very hard to catch” and that people are far more likely to catch and experience complications from the flu.
Susan Burkinshaw — who is health and safety committee co-chairwoman of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations but shared her personal thoughts — said she’s more concerned about pedestrian safety than students contracting the virus and thinks the “real, live public health issue” deserving more attention is pertussis, also known as whooping cough.
“I think we really have bigger fish to fry than our kids catching Ebola,” she said.
Burkinshaw said schools and hospitals should be prepared for the virus in part to alleviate anxiety felt in the county.
“I think they need to be thinking about it because there is such hysteria,” she said.
Glick said the procedures were developed “in an abundance of caution” and county health officials do not predict a case will show up in the area.
“We’re doing this because, as a community, it’s important that we are prepared and that we have policies and guidelines in place,” Anderson said.