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Flu Outbreak Forces Two Districts In Tennessee To Close Temporarily

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By Daniel Gursky and Sally K. Gilford

Influenza has hit Tennessee schools early and hard this year, forcing school districts in Nashville and Knoxville to shut their doors last week.

All public schools in Nashville were closed from last Tuesday through Friday, while students and teachers in Knox County--which includes the city of Knoxville-stayed home the last two days of the week. The two districts, with a total enrollment of more than 115,000, reported student-absentee rates as high as 50 percent in some schools.

Charles Frazier, the superintendent of schools in the Nashville-Davidson County district, decided to close all 121 schools "on the advice of the medical community, both public and private." The county's health director identified the virus sweeping through the schools as Type- A Beijing flu, a stronger, more contagious strain than the Type-B virus common last year, Mr. Frazier said.

In Knoxville, health officials were unsure if their students' flu-like symptoms of severe nausea, high fever, and muscle aches were the result of a flu virus. Last week, the director of the Knox County Health Department said that the culprit may have been a different virus.

Whatever the case, officials in beth districts said the illness- related closings were highly unusual. "We don't remember having to do this in recent times," said Becky Ramsey, the communications supervisor for the Knox County schools. Schools in Nashville and Knoxville were scheduled to reopen Monday, Nov. 25, and last week officials said they were looking forward to the Thanksgiving break to give students and teachers a chance to recover.

Thomas Guyrik, a public-health adviser at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, said that "this is quite early" for the onset of flu season. "It should start around Christmas in a normal year," he said.

However, Mr. Guyrik cautioned, the early outbreaks do not mean that the flu season, which normally continues through March, will end early.

Outbreaks of flu also have been reported in other states in recent weeks:

  • In Mississippi, a number of schools were closed in at least three counties last week and the week before after absentee rates in some areas approached 30 percent.
  • Some schools in Louisiana, particularly in the northwest part of the state, also reported double-digit absentee rates, although no public school systems in the state shut down entirely.
  • In the Houston area, thousands of students were out with the flu. Some schools reported that up to one-fourth of their students were absent.
  • Illness forced the closing of a number of Catholic schools in the Cleveland area earlier in November, and flu cases were reported throughout Ohio.

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