ASHMORE — A stomach ailment, but not food poisoning, might have been the cause of the illness that kept about half of Ashmore Elementary School’s students out of school on Wednesday, a Coles County health official said.
Investigators “seriously doubt” that food was the cause of the illness that sickened enough of the school’s students and staff for district officials to order the school closed Wednesday, county Health Department Director Dan Stretch said.
Stretch said there doesn’t appear to be any “common food” that people who became ill and those who did not both ate. Based on interviews, the department found that about as many of the ill students ate the school lunch as did not, he said.
Fifty-five of the school’s 100 students were absent again on Thursday, Charleston school district Superintendent Jim Littleford said. About 40 of them were still ill or still had some symptoms, while parents kept the rest home as precautions, he said.
The illness also affected five of the school’s 14 staff members but all but one of them, a custodian, were back at school on Thursday, Littleford also said.
Stretch said he believes the illness was most likely caused by person-to-person contact as the symptoms the ill students had are “more common” with that kind of ailment. He said the illness doesn’t appear to be a flu virus, which usually affects the respiratory system.
The illness could be because of a hygiene issue, Stretch said. It usually occurs in “confined situations” such as schools where a large number of people are in the same building for periods of time, he explained.
Littleford said the Ashmore school’s nurse spent time with students Thursday instructing them on proper hand washing. There was also an additional custodian on duty at the school for extra cleaning, he said.
Stretch said the health department is trying to collect stool samples from some of the infected people so they can be sent to the Illinois Department of Public Health for testing. He didn’t know when those tests might be complete.
Littleford said he heard from several people that some Ashmore residents with no connections to the school have also been ill with similar symptoms. Stretch said he’s also heard some people say that but the health department has no actual reports indicating it.
Littleford said he authorized the school to reopen Thursday though about the same number of students were absent was because “the situation escalated so quickly” on Wednesday.
“We didn’t know what we were dealing with,” he said. “Now, I think we have an indication.”
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