Everything You Want To Know About That Illness Sweeping Through Mesa County Schools, Answered

November 22, 2019
A car drives by Mount Garfield Middle School in Clifton.A car drives by Mount Garfield Middle School in Clifton.Stina Sieg/CPR News
A car drives by Mount Garfield Middle School in Clifton.

It’s been about a week since a particularly nasty G-I bug started spreading through Mesa County schools. Day by day, more students called in sick and more schools closed, until the district decided to close all campuses.

Do you have questions? We sure do. And here’s our best attempt at trying to answer them.

Fair warning though: This illness is pretty gross, and some of these answers are too.

Comfortable with bodily fluids? Then read on, my friend.

What’s happening now with Mesa County Schools?

With half a dozen schools already closed yesterday, District 51, which covers Mesa County, went ahead and announced it was shutting down all schools through the Thanksgiving holiday in order to give crews the time they need to deep clean all facilities. The district says it’s never had to take a step like this to deal with an outbreak before.

Is it really that hard to clean up?

Public health officials believe the bug getting everyone sick is norovirus, or a similar infectious illness. If they’re right, then yeah, it is hard to clean up.

Norovirus spreads through direct contact with an infected person, or by touching a surface contaminated with the virus. Since the virus causes vomiting, and vomiting can spread a lot of viruses around, you’ve got a nasty cycle there. 

For reference, noro is so contagious that if someone vomits within 25 feet of you, you are vulnerable to getting tiny particles in your mouth and then coming down with the bug. Oh, and once a virus lands somewhere, it can stay infectious for months.

To make matters worse, not all cleaners will remove norovirus. The CDC recommends using a bleach-based solution, and leaving it on the contaminated surface for at least five minutes.

Why aren’t they sure it’s norovirus?

To confirm that it’s norovirus, scientists need to be able to examine a stool sample, and public health officials say there just aren’t a lot of parents lining up with their sick kids in to provide that.

However, the predominant symptom — sudden vomiting — is classic norovirus, so they’re assuming it’s that and just not worrying about making it official. There have also been reports of fever and diarrhea, but the health department has been unable to confirm that. 

How bad is it?

A senior at Palisade High School, where the outbreak was first reported, said her friends told her it was the worst sickness they’d ever experienced, with one girl saying she considered going to the hospital.

But so far, there have been no reports of hospitalizations, and while the illness is uncomfortable and extremely inconvenient for people, Mesa County Public Health said that if it is norovirus, it isn’t actually all that dangerous.

Dehydration due to vomiting is the most likely risk, especially for young people and the elderly. 

Is this outbreak really limited to Mesa County schools, or are other places seeing it too? 

So far, we haven’t heard reports beyond Mesa County schools, but it is reasonable to believe this could continue spread, especially to workplaces and public spaces.

St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction has issued a restriction on visitors who are under 18 or have experienced possible symptoms of the illness in the last 24 hours. Thanksgiving travel could also send the virus much further.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has been notified of the outbreak and will watch for similar symptoms popping up throughout the state, especially with kids who may have interacted with Mesa County students. 

For perspective, it’s important to know that norovirus is actually pretty common. Colorado has had many outbreaks this year alone. What is uncommon, in this case, is how widely this particular outbreak has spread.