WEEKEND HANGOUT – Gina Lusher, foreground right, and other Sitka Cirque aerialists rehearse Thursday night for this weekend’s show, Cirque Noir, at the 207 Smith Street studio. The show includes cage dancers, live music and champagne. Kids from first grade through high school will have a separate fundraiser showcase event Saturday afternoon from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Tickets for both shows are available online at sitkacirque.com. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

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Daily Sitka Sentinel

Kids Out of School With RSV and Flu



Sentinel Staff Writers

Flu and an infection called Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) have swept through local schools in recent weeks, causing high numbers of absences, school officials report.

“We’re seeing an increase in absences that really does seem to be tied to increases in flu and RSV reports,” Sitka District Superintendent Frank Hauser told the Sentinel Monday.

The district doesn’t keep a precise tally of the causes of absences, but the current rate is significantly higher than normal, Hauser said.

Five to ten percent is a normal range, but Monday 26 percent of students were absent, he said.

“We do have staff members that are also absent,” the superintendent said. “Any time staff or students miss school, it’s going to have an impact.”

“We have 31 subs right now in the district, but we’re always looking for more substitutes… What I’m really looking for is to get that number closer to 50 so we have a good pool of subs to fill in as the need arises,” he said.

Information on becoming a substitute is available at https://www.sitkaschools.org/en-US/employment-2ffc5d88 or by calling the district office at 907-747-8622.

Sick students should remain at home, Hauser said.

“Please keep your students home if they’re not feeling well and let your school know if they’re going to be absent,” he said.

Elementary Schools

Casey Demmert, principal of Keet Gooshi Heen Elementary, said he felt like the school “topped out” with 50 kids absent last Thursday.

On Monday that number was 69 out of the total student population of 277 students. Demmert said about 18 of those are pre-arranged absences, for Thanksgiving travel or other purposes. Two teachers were out Monday due to illness. 

“We’ve heard kind of two things – the respiratory illness – kind of a bad cold that’s going around,” the principal said. “We also have students with flu-like symptoms, body aches, with vomiting – definitely some kids vomiting at school – and the chest cold too.”

As a side note, Demmert said he hasn’t heard of many COVID cases among students so far this fall. He added that home test kits are available to students and parents requesting them.

“People aren’t mentioning COVID much at all,” he said.

Mt. Edgecumbe High

Across the bridge at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, RSV and flu infections have waned after a surge earlier this month that caused overflow in the school’s infirmary.

“We had a surge two weeks ago, right before the end of our first trimester, where we had to pull in some extra support to be able to monitor and support the students. And it lasted that week… we had a huge surge that had a big impact. Since then, it has been back to normal manageability,” MEHS Superintendent Suzzuk Huntington told the Sentinel.

While sick students in the Sitka School District can stay home, students at the boarding school are moved to a sick bay for recovery. When infections ran rampant two weeks ago the sick bay quickly reached capacity, Huntington said.

“Most folks may not realize that our students who are sick don’t just go back to their rooms,” she said. “They are housed in the sick bay area during the school day and beyond. We did not have enough sick bay rooms to be able to take care of the students… We actually ended up using all of our sick bay rooms and all of our COVID isolation rooms, quarantine rooms, to house the students who were having respiratory illnesses that week.”

The school’s COVID isolation area includes 18 beds in addition to the standard infirmary.

Staff members also have fallen ill, but the school has been able to find substitutes when needed, she said.

“There have been staff that have also gotten these illnesses, but it didn’t have the same overpowering impact. It cycled through and we were able to maintain at least the degree to which we were able to maintain finding substitutes. It didn’t leave us in the same kind of crisis,” she said.

Unfortunately for the students, the outbreak peaked in the week of Nov. 7, which happened to be packed with exams.

“It happened during finals week, and so we had to really work to make sure students had opportunities to make up, and tried to figure out how to schedule those makeup exams,” Huntington said.

She was appreciative of the flexibility shown by students and staff at the height of the outbreak.

“The worst of it has definitely passed and we’re still seeing its effects – but not to the point where we have to make drastic changes to our standard, everyday practices,” Huntington said.

State Trends

The state reported a sharp increase in influenza last week.

“We are seeing more influenza earlier in the year than we have in past seasons,” the Department of Health reported Friday. Cases in the week of Nov. 6-12 were double the number in the week before. Most detections have been of influenza A, though influenza B has been detected as well, the department reported.

This seasonal rise in respiratory illness occurred earlier than usual, the department said. The chart from the Department of Health showed the season peaked for positive influenza tests at the beginning of January last season; none the year before; late December for the 2019-20 season; and mid February for the 2018-19 season.

The state reported many parts of Alaska are experiencing hospital capacity limitations on both adult and pediatric units, including ICUs, because of the high inpatient volume and limited staffing. 

Among children, the state said, high respiratory disease hospitalization rates are due to a number of viruses currently circulating, including enteroviruses, rhinoviruses, RSV, and influenza, Department of Health officials said.

Transfers to other facilities or out of state are possible, but might require more time than usual to secure, the department said, and there are long wait times for an inpatient bed within the Emergency Department. Daily meetings with DOH and key Alaska hospital leaders are currently being held to maximize coordination statewide.

The Department of Health said 15.2% of Alaska residents have received their seasonal influenza vaccines. In Sitka, Harry Race Pharmacy reported the pharmacy has given 600 flu shots so far this season. Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center’s figure was not immediately available.

SEARHC Chief Medical Officer and senior vice president Dr. Elliot Bruhl said the steepness of the curve in the increases in cases is comparable to other years.

“What’s unusual is the timing,” he said. “Usually you see this extremely radical rise in flu cases right after the holidays – in January. And this year it’s now, and it started in late October.”

“Another thing that’s different is that RSV is going along with it,” Bruhl said. “Usually in Southeast Alaska, RSV is a late spring event, and it’s usually later than the rest of the country. But this year it’s happening right up front.”

The hospital has been “really busy,” he said, “We’ve definitely seen some cases of flu in the hospital. The hospital’s been really full, pretty consistently since summer ended. It hasn’t really dropped off and it’s continued to be really busy. Some of that is the flu and some of it is other things – it’s been a busy fall.”

The hospital has a mandatory flu vaccination policy for its some 600 employees, and hasn’t seen a significant number of absences due to flu, Bruhl said.

“We’ve not had a lot of problems with staffing I think because of the vaccination program,” Bruhl said. “We got our flu vaccine early this year, and we finished up our employee vaccination on the first of November, just in time really, because this year is an early year and that’s prevented us from having big problems.”

SEARHC today offered a flu vaccination clinic for the community at Mountainside Urgent Care, at 209 Moller Avenue, 1 to 5 p.m. today.

Bruhl also reminded citizens about the importance of hand washing and covering the face when coughing or sneezing in the prevention of influenza and RSV.

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At a Glance

(updated 9-12-2023)

By Sentinel Staff

The state Department of Health and Social Services has posted the following update on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alaska as of 8:57 a.m. Tuesday, September 12.

New cases as of Tuesday: 278

Total cases (cumulative) statewide – 301,513

Total (cumulative) deaths – 1,485

Case Rate per 100,000 – 38.14

To visit the Alaska DHSS Corona Response dashboard website click here.

COVID in Sitka

The Sitka community level is now "Low.'' Case statistics are as of Tuesday.

Case Rate/100,000 – 152.50

Cases in last 7 days – 13

Cumulative Sitka cases – 3,575

Deceased (cumulative) – 10

The local case data are from Alaska DHSS.






December 2003

The Sawmill Cove Industrial Park board of directors endorsed a final contract tuesday for the city to sell a minimum of 40 million gallons of reservoir water per year to an export company based in New York City. ... under the contract Quest would have the right to purchase up to 1 billion gallons of water per year at 1 cent per gallon



December 1973

 The City and Borough of Sitka conducted a community public opinion poll evaluating municipal services and facilities. ... The overall results gave this priority order: 1. roads and highways; 2. water and sewer; 3. downtown parking; 4. garbage collection and disposal; 5. hospital and medical facilities; 6. planning and zoning; 7. boat harbors.


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