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Health officials investigating following reports of illness connected to Washington D.C. field trips

Posted: 11:17 AM, Apr 09, 2019
Updated: 2019-04-09 18:12:40-04
Olmsted Falls Middle School
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OLMSTED FALLS, Ohio — The Cuyahoga County Board of Health is investigating school trips to Washington D.C. following reports that dozens students from two school districts became ill, suffering from symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain.

The Olmsted Falls School District sent an email to parents of eighth-grade students who attended a D.C. field trip from April 3 to 5. The email contained a forwarded message from the county health department asking parental consent for health officials to ask students questions such as whether or not they got sick on the trip, sometime after, or not at all and what food they may have eaten.

Health officials interviewed numerous students at Olmsted Falls Middle School on Tuesday in hopes of determining what caused the illness and how it spread.

“We want to try to get some more information on things such as where they consumed food or had drinks while they were on the trip, as well as potential places of exposure to try to track down where the illness may have come from,” said Chris Kippes, the director of epidemiology, surveillance and informatics for the Cuyahoga County Board of Health. “Once we have the all the information, we try to compare the information from the students that became ill to the information on the students who did not become ill. That tends to point us in the direction of what may have caused the students to become sick. It’s a challenge but it’s a challenge we’re up to. We’re familiar with this type of investigation and process and so we go about our business.”

A total of 264 students, 20 staff members and 22 parent chaperones went on the middle school’s annual trip to the nation’s capitol, where they visited numerous museums, memorial and important governmental buildings, including the White House. The group also went on a moonlight cruise Thursday evening.

Many of the students, perhaps between 30 to 50 of them, started becoming ill last week. The students exhibited symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pains or cramps. It is far too early to tell, but Kippes said the illness may be related to a viral infection, perhaps the norovirus. Prevalent in the winter and spring months, the norovirus is a common but very contagious virus that can cause symptoms similar to what the students experienced.

Eleventh-grade students from Midview High School in Lorain County also attended Washington D.C. on the same dates, and eight students reported being ill.

“Basically, they have to have been exposed to some type of virus or bacteria or something like that to become sick,” Kippes said. “Individuals that initially become ill start to shed that virus, for example, and they shed it in multiple ways.”

Brian Nowak, the owner of Norwak Tours, said the company was notified of the illnesses on Friday morning and immediately contacted its vendors. Nowak Tours serves as the tour operators or facilitators of the trip. The company does not own the busses used to transport the students. Nowak said this is the first time students have become ill while on one of the company’s trips.

Kippes said some of the students had to seek medical attention. Additionally, some students remained absent from school on Tuesday. Because health officials have to retrace the steps of dozens of students before determining any common threads, the investigation is expected to take a couple of weeks.

“It is an involved process so it will take us a little time to figure it all out,” Kippes said.

Nowak Tours only provided services to Olmsted Falls and Midview High School. However, another local school, St. Paul School in North Canton, went on a similar trip to Washington D.C. recently. Some students and chaperones also became ill with flu-like symptoms, according to principal Amie Hale. However, the group did not attend the “Spirit of Washington” cruise while on their trip.

“As of today, all students have returned to school and appear to be in good health,” Hale said.