Schools have written letters to parents, sent home dirty gym clothes to be washed, set out hand sanitizers and answered phone calls from worried parents in recent weeks -- all because of MRSA.
And concern over methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus prompted 162 nurses, athletic directors, principals and other administrators to attend a briefing Wednesday morning by the Erie County Health Department at the Erie County Emergency Services Training & Operations Center.
The message from Dr. Anthony J. Billittier, Erie County health commissioner, is that MRSA is treatable -- and let's take advantage of public awareness to institutionalize good hygiene practices that can prevent many diseases.
"If we can get people washing their hands, I think it will pay off," he said.
Schools have been on the front lines for concern over the bacteria after reports that three students around the country died from the organism. Also, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study last month that revealed that 18,650 deaths occurred from MRSA in 2005.
MRSA has been around for some time, particularly in health care facilities, Billittier said. The Community Acquired MRSA that is common outside of hospitals is found in the environment and on the skin. It is resistant to methicillin but can be treated effectively with other common antibiotics, said Dr. Richard Judelsohn, county Health Department medical director.
School officials were looking for specific answers Wednesday: What should be done about weight rooms and exercise equipment? Should hand sanitizers be used? Should a student with an open wound be allowed to swim or play basketball? If we have a case of MRSA, what do we disinfect?
Health Department officials recommended regularly disinfecting vinyl athletic equipment -- several times a day if it is used throughout the day. They also suggested each athlete could place a clean towel or other barrier down before lying down on a weight machine.
Frequent hand washing with liquid soap is best, but hand sanitizers can be a good second option in a school setting because of logistics, Billittier said. Wounds should be covered with bandages, he said, and a student with an open wound should be kept out of the pool.
"Forget MRSA," Billittier said. "This is a discussion we should have had 10 years ago about any open wound."
Schools are not required to report instances of MRSA, unless there is a cluster of cases. It may not be unusual for some schools to have several children who develop unrelated cases, said Health Department epidemiologist Heather Lindstrom.