Detroit students contract bacterial infection in recent batch of illnesses, officials say

A photo of a school building.
Marcus Garvey Academy in Detroit is the site of a recent series of student illnesses partially tied to a bacterial infection. The pre-K through 8 school was closed for three days as the Detroit school district moved to deep clean the building and limit transmission (Ethan Bakuli/Chalkbeat)

A recent spread of student illnesses that forced Detroit’s Marcus Garvey Academy to close last week may be partially traced to the bacterial infection haemophilus influenzae, according to Detroit school district and health officials.

The school reopened to students and staff Monday as parents expressed concerns about their children’s safety and district transparency about student illnesses. As Garvey students trickled into the building, staff met them at the door to offer masks and perform temperature checks.

Last week, the district reported that the school had “experienced an unusually high rate of flu-like symptoms including student fevers, and vomiting” among its early grade students. Garvey was subsequently closed Wednesday for the remainder of the week as district custodial staff cleaned and disinfected the entire building.

DPSCD notified the public earlier last week that Jimari Wililams, a kindergarten student from Marcus Garvey Academy, had died. A medical examiner had not yet determined the cause of death, district officials said.

In a follow-up statement on Monday, Chrystal Wilson, spokesperson for the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said the school had at least three confirmed cases of haemophilus influenzae, a bacterial infection that can contribute to other illnesses such as ear infections, pneumonia, and meningitis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The infection typically affects children under 5, elderly people, or those who are immunocompromised. 

The CDC recommends that children under the age of 5 get multiple shots of the haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine. 

“We are asking parents to actively monitor their children’s health and ensure that students stay home if they have flu-like symptoms,” said Wilson.  “As always, we need to ensure that students are fully vaccinated with all of the state’s immunization requirements to attend school.”

A nurse is on site at Garvey to monitor student health and assist students, staff, and families if students feel ill while at school, she said.

Students, staff return to Garvey amid ongoing health concerns

Garvey students are  encouraged to wear masks for the coming weeks, school officials said. Mask-wearing is not mandatory because the school does not currently have COVID protocols, said Garvey Principal Wakeita Winston, who spoke Friday during a virtual informational meeting for Garvey families and staff recorded by local TV station WXYZ.  

“We have put our thermometers back at the doors so we can screen children as they come into the building,” Winston said, “because sometimes a child may feel okay but they may have a (high) temperature.”

In Friday’s virtual session, Detroit Health Department Medical Director Claudia Richardson told families and staff that some children appeared to have contracted haemophilus influenzae. The department is recommending preventive medication for students with confirmed cases  as well as symptomatic children, household members of students with cases, and staff members.

Garvey families with sick children are urged to visit their medical provider, Richardson added. Students who do not have a primary care doctor can receive the preventive medication at an Ascension health clinic located inside of Garvey Academy. Starting Monday, health department letters will be available at the school’s main office to grant permission for doctors to provide affected students and staff with the medication.

Winston stressed that the school will be “cautious as we go through the next couple of weeks.” Staff, she added, will be around the building to remind students to wash and sanitize their hands properly. 

From her car parked across from Garvey on Monday, parent Erica Thompson watched hesitantly as her daughters entered the building.

“I’m a little nervous, they almost didn’t come today,” Thompson said. “But they assured us that they sanitized the building. The thing is we don’t even really know what was the cause of the illness.”

Thompson’s reminder to her kids: “I told them to keep their hands sanitized and to just keep their masks on at all times.”

Both Thompson and Mia Bynem, a parent of three children at Garvey, are hoping district and school officials can provide better communication to parents moving forward.

As early as last Monday, Bynem said, one of her children’s teachers suggested she not send her kids to school. News had already spread among staff about students showing flu-like symptoms far in advance of the school officially closing the building. 

That stressed out Bynem, whose youngest child is in preschool at Garvey and has asthma. Anything more serious than the common cold could potentially weaken his immune system.

“Why are we just now being notified?” Bynem said. “It’s not fair to do things last minute.” 

In Friday’s virtual information session, Deputy Superintendent Alycia Meriweather told parents the district has provided updates to families via robocalls.

“We believe stopping the transmission, cleaning, and then monitoring are our paths forward here,” said Meriweather on Friday. As early as May 1, Meriweather said, the district had received several reports of pre-K and kindergarten students who were not feeling well.

“We have 106 schools and right now we’re fortunate to have a nurse in every school,” she said. “Every day there are students across our district who have illnesses or don’t feel well, those reports come in through the nurses.”

The health department said in a news release on May 3 that its officials are working closely with DPSCD and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “to monitor and trace all reported illnesses among students at that location.”

The department urged parents of children ages 4 to 7 to seek medical care promptly if their child experiences fever, headache, lethargy, nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain.

Ethan Bakuli is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit covering Detroit Public Schools Community District. Contact Ethan at ebakuli@chalkbeat.org.

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