Mesa County Schools Await Confirmation Of The Culprit That Made The District Sick

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Palisade High School, the first school in Mesa County to close due to the unknown, norovirus-like illness.

A few have called it the “Palisade Plague.”

For some students across Mesa County, it’s the reason their Thanksgiving holiday started two days early. 

But for health officials, the gastrointestinal illness that’s swept through this pocket of western Colorado for nearly two weeks is still a bit of a mystery. While many believe norovirus is what forced Mesa County Valley School District 51 to cancel classes for 22,000 students, it can’t be proven until test results come back from a lab.

“It’ll be so good to get this sample back,” said Jeff Kuhr, executive director for Mesa County Public Health.

The sample isn’t something as simple as a mouth swab — sorry in advance on this one. It’s a stool sample, the best way to test for norovirus. The agency received the sample after a plea was made on Facebook. Kuhr knows people must have thought it was an odd request.

“But thankfully, we have it,” he said. “I feel really good about that.” 

He looks forward to clarity in the foggy health drama. On Nov. 13, Palisade High School senior Liliana Flanigan was choreographing a dance at a school musical rehearsal, when a boy said he wasn’t feeling well.

“And so he sits down,” she said. “And I can see him taking deep breaths and trying to hold it in.” 

Instead, he suddenly vomited in a trash can just offstage. Shortly after, his dance partner became ill as well.

“And by the end, they were both laying on the floor in the fetal position,”  she said. “It looked incredibly uncomfortable.”

Flanigan did not get sick, but the next day, a third of her nearly 1,100 classmates did. Palisade High School was forced to close for a day and a half for cleaning. Then the sickness closed a nearby middle school, then an elementary school, then another.

After six closures across a cluster of towns, School District 51 spokeswoman Emily Shockley said it was clear a “bigger measure” was needed, “and that was to close all the schools.”

“We know that for every parent we hear from saying ‘Close down the schools, you need to do it right now,’ we're also not hearing from parents who are saying, ‘Well, where is my kid gonna go when there's no school?’”

While no one knows how the outbreak began, Jeff Kuhr’s “job is to make sure this doesn't get super widespread in Mesa County, beyond the schools.”

He’s warned residents and businesses to take precautions, including cleaning with bleach solutions. But as hardy as norovirus is — can live on surfaces for weeks — it’s also extremely common, with hundreds of outbreaks a year across the country. 

Another Colorado school district in Grand County has a suspected outbreak occurring now, too.  

“Just think about all the ships you hear about on the news, all the cruise ships that have to turn around and come back home because the entire passenger roll gets affected by this thing,” Kuhr said.

It’s a thing that’s uncomfortable and inconvenient, but not usually dangerous. Kuhr’s most important piece of prevention advice will remain the same: Wash your hands.