Going Viral: Last month, illness related absences reached an all time high in one of the worst flu seasons to date


Illustration by Nicole Kim/Chronicle

Danielle Spitz

It wasn’t until she couldn’t stand up without getting a headache that Alyse Tran ’18 finally decided she was too sick to come to school. She had endured three days of body aches to avoid missing class, but eventually her flu symptoms became too debilitating to ignore.

“I had a lot of tests and labs due so I definitely felt pressured to come to school even though I was sick,” Tran said. “Finally my parents made me stay home. I didn’t even want to stay home but my parents made me.”

This year’s flu season is the most widespread since the Centers for Disease Control started surveilling the viral infection 13 years ago. While there is no official tally, schools in at least 12 states have reported closures of a day or more due to the spread of the illness among students and faculty. 63 children have died from the flu this year as of press time and hospitalization rates continue to rise, rivaling those of the 2014-2015 season, which saw 148 pediatric deaths and was one of the most severe in recent years. 

This past month set the record for highest number of absences due to illness for the month of January in the school’s history, according to upper school student discipline and attendance coordinator Gabriel Preciado. A total of2,794 absences due to illness were reported in January, close to the 2,841 that were reported in October of 2009, when the swine flu broke out.

In a Chronicle poll of 263 students, 27 percent said they had the flu this year.

The predominant strain of the flu this year is H3N2, which pediatrician Deborah Rubin said is particularly virulent.

“The vaccine is not as good of a match for that particular strain this year, so the virus can mutate and it can tend to have the vaccine be less effective and therefore more flu gets spread around,” Rubin said.

However, the CDC still recommends a yearly injectable flu vaccine as the most crucial form of prevention against flu viruses, pointing to recent studies that show that the vaccine reduces the risk of flu illness by about 40 to 60 percent among the overall population during seasons when most circulating flu viruses are like the vaccine viruses. The recommendation to not use the nasal spray flu vaccine was renewed for the second year.

“The vaccine still can be helpful because, first of all, it protects against other strains of influenza because there is more than one strain going around, and it can confer partial immunity so that even if you catch the flu after you got the flu shot, it probably won’t be nearly as bad,” Rubin said.

Tran said she usually gets the flu shot but didn’t get around to it this year. Many other students who responded to the poll also did not get the vaccine, with 53 percent of respondents saying that they did not receive the flu shot this year.

Even though he planned on getting vaccinated like he does every year, Jack Riley ’19 got the flu before he had the chance. Riley missed two days of school due to illness and said being sick this year convinced him to get the flu shot more consistently in the future.

“I’ve definitely had the flu in the past, but not as bad as it was this time,” Riley said. “This time, on one of the days, I was close to a 103 degree fever.”

To differentiate between a regular cold and the flu, Rubin said the hallmarks of the flu are high fevers, body aches and significant coughing.

Although the school has seen an increase in students and faculty with the flu, the cases have been well-managed due to the school’s health campaign that started this fall, community health officer Milo Sini said. With emails sent out to the school community and messages posted on ‘wolverscreens’ around campus, Sini aims to educate students, faculty and staff on proper precautions to prevent contracting the flu.

The campaign reminds community members to be diligent about washing their hands, avoid sharing personal items with others and staying home for at least 24 hours if any symptoms are present.

“Everyone has to do their part,” Sini said. “With an epidemic, it takes everyone. So if you are sick, stay home. My advice to students who feel pressured is communicate with your teachers. Just because you’re home sick doesn’t mean that you can’t be doing work.”

Sirus Wheaton ’19 said he did not receive the flu vaccine this year but did his best to prevent getting sick through other precautions. Wheaton eventually contracted the flu and had to miss one day of school.

“I use hand sanitizer all the time and I try to not touch people, but then people would cough on me on purpose as a joke and it definitely got me sick,” Wheaton said.

The school offers the flu vaccine to faculty and staff during the health fair at the beginning of the year. However, history teacher Dave Waterhouse, who had the flu this year, did not receive the flu vaccine.

“My doctor told me that it only prevented about 10 percent of the flu germs,” Waterhouse said. “I so rarely get it that I don’t even think about it.”

Before being out sick for two days this year, Waterhouse said he had not missed school due to illness in about 9 years. Even after he came back to school, he said he had to sit down during class because standing up for too long made him feel dizzy.

Although he’s had the flu in the past, Waterhouse said this year’s sickness was strong enough to defeat his “iron stomach.”

While timing of the flu season is unpredictable and can vary every year, flu activity typically peaks between December and February, according to CDC. But even if flu activity peaks soon, patterns from past seasons dominated by the H3N2 strain indicate that there may be many more weeks of flu activity.