Midtown Raleigh News

Concerned about Ebola, Wake schools officials are asking students about recent travel to Africa

The Wake County school system is asking students if they have recently traveled to Africa, becoming the latest local agency to conduct basic-level Ebola infection screening.

Hospitals, emergency dispatchers and EMS crews were already asking the question. Now Wake school officials are doing so at registration for new students and for students who’ve been out of class for an extended period. Students who have recently visited the West African countries at the heart of the deadly epidemic will be referred to county health officials.

“We don’t think our parents should be worried,” said Brenda Elliott, the Wake County school system’s assistant superintendent for student support services.

“We don’t have any indication from the health community that they should be worried. But they want us to incorporate the screening process in case we have children who have been traveling abroad.”

In a memo sent to principals on Monday, Wake schools were asked to take precautions against Ebola, the flu and other illnesses. One sheet is titled “Process for students who have recently been to Africa.”

The sheet says that school staff should ask students, “Have you traveled to Africa in the past 21 days?” If the answer is yes, staff members are instructed to notify the school nurse immediately. The nurse would ask the parents about their travel status. If the student has been in the U.S. for fewer than 21 days, the county’s Communicable Diseases program would be notified.

No other school system in the Triangle has adopted the policy, nor has the Charlotte-Mecklenburg system, the state’s next-largest school system. It’s unclear whether any other schools in the state have. School and health officials across the state say that they have been discussing potential measures and can begin using them if Ebola becomes a more serious and direct threat.

The virus can be transmitted only through direct contact with bodily fluids from someone who is infected and showing symptoms. So far, the only cases to emerge in the U.S. have been among people infected overseas and two nurses who treated one of those patients. The virus hasn’t escaped into the general population.

Around the country, at least some school systems have put similar measures in place, typically in or near major cities with heavy international air travel and large African immigrant populations, including New York and the suburbs of Washington, D.C.

Wake school officials said they enacted the screening policy on direction of the county health department.

“I don’t think we’re overreacting,” Elliott said. “We’re certainly trying to follow the procedures recommended by the health care experts in our county.”

Elliott said staff members would not ask each student whether he or she has been to Africa, but only those they have reason to believe might have been. She said examples would include children who have been absent for an extended period of time. She noted that parents typically explain why their children have been absent.

For new students, staff will ask parents as students are registering. New students register daily in the 155,000-student district that’s the largest in North Carolina.

Talking to the CDC

State health officials have been in frequent contact with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the latest thinking on measures to prevent and control Ebola, and in turn communicate regularly with the local health departments and hospitals across the state to keep them abreast of the latest developments, said North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, in an interview Wednesday.

As to schools, though, the state has left the decision-making to local health and school officials for now.

“The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Public Health has advised local health departments to develop outreach messages and conduct risk assessments of known travelers to affected areas of West Africa,” DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre said in an emailed statement Thursday. “This has not been specific to schools or any organizations.”

Lefebvre said state officials were unaware of any other school system in the state that had begun Ebola screening, and that DHHS was not mandating it.

Area universities have been carefully screening students and faculty who have traveled in Africa. In Orange County, the local health department has been working with UNC-Chapel Hill on its screening process.

Orange County emergency dispatchers also ask about recent travel if someone calling 911 for help has relevant symptoms, such as fever and nausea. But Orange County Health Director Colleen Bridger said that so far there hadn’t seemed to be any reason to ask the two school systems there to screen for Ebola, as there simply wasn’t that much travel among the students.

Some counties holding off

Representatives from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Durham and Johnston County school systems said school officials would screen students if requested by health officials.

“We have been in contact with the Durham Health Department as recently as today, and will be talking to them again tomorrow about this topic, but as of now, they are not asking us to conduct any special screenings of our students,” said Chrissy Pearson, a Durham schools spokeswoman, in an emailed statement.

“We will of course follow their instructions and recommendations, as the health and safety of our students is our top priority.”