How the Measles Outbreak Affects School Safety

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath

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measles outbreakOn April 29, 2019, federal health officials said that measles continues to spread across the United States, with over 700 documented cases found across 22 states, according to the New York Times. The epidemic is the worst outbreak in decades, with the highly contagious disease spreading largely from communities with low vaccination rates. 

Children under the age of 5 make up more than half of the documented cases. Amid the outbreak, schools and local community centers are being shut down, suspending operations, and instituting quarantines. The scope of the outbreak is not yet clear,  but schools should have a safety plan that considers the worst-case scenario. 

Measles was declared an eliminated disease in 2000 by the CDC, but has returned in recent years. More than 500 out of the 704 reported cases (the number indicates documented cases only, meaning numbers could be higher) were people who had not been vaccinated. The disease is dangerous, especially for individuals who are immuno-compromised, such as individuals undergoing chemotherapy or babies too young to be vaccinated. There have been no deaths thus far, but 66 people have been hospitalized, a third with pneumonia, as per the New York Times.

The measles vaccine has a 99% success rate and was considered a public health achievement by the federal health organization, as per Forbes. Given these statistics and the risks of the disease, parents and community leaders may be surprised to learn parents refusing to vaccinate children. A vocal anti-vaccine movement is responsible for the recent drop in immunizations, perpetuating conspiracy-driven and anti-science propaganda. The current outbreak is concentrated in three large areas - New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C., largely due to the work of anti-vaccine organizations.

Outbreaks in New York were concentrated in Orthodox Jewish Communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County. Officials in New York City were forced to shut down seven Orthodox schools refusing to comply with vaccination orders - as of April 29, five were reopened after they disclosed records showing they turned away unvaccinated students, but two remain suspended pending an investigation.

New York City’s measles outbreak was a largely concentrated area, but this does not mean that widespread exposure is not a risk. Schools, colleges, universities, airports, and other public spaces are working with local safety officials to detect exposure and avoid further spread of the disease.

How To Respond To Measles Outbreak in School

Quarantine is necessary to stop the spread of the measles, treat those affected, and keep the community at large safe from further spread of the disease. If students, teachers, or parents suspect that a member of the community has contracted measles, telling an administrator or safety manager is essential. Time is critical for containing the outbreak, and the faster the illness is identified, the quicker a doctor can treat the individual, officials can locate the source of the disease, such as an unvaccinated individual, and further danger to members of the community can be prevented.

In Los Angeles, two universities, the University of California, Los Angeles, and California State University, Los Angeles, quarantined more than 700 students total to curb the spread of the measles after the outbreak was declared in the county, according to the New York Times. A student who contracted measles attended two classes on the UCLA campus, while contagious, which started the spread of the illness. People who were potentially exposed to the disease went to the Student Health Center to be screened, which helped the universities determine the number of individuals to quarantine. The department of public health lifts the quarantine order as soon as students present documentation of immunization records.

The same strategies apply to state and local schools. Preparing for an outbreak may be even more urgent for K-12 schools, since cases of the measles are more likely to appear  among unvaccinated children. The same protocol, applies, however - school administrators must work with public health officials to notify students and parents as soon as possible. If anyone is  at-risk of exposure or having contracted measles, they should stay home and avoid contact with others. Meanwhile, public health officials should coordinate vaccinations for individuals at risk of furthering the outbreak, and make sure the school has reliable immunization records.

Schools can also prepare for handling a measles outbreak by ensuring a medical staff is on hand. Across the United States, a shortage of nurses has put public schools at risk, forcing a single healthcare provider to travel between 3 or 4 schools and juggle caseloads. Approximately 25% of schools do not have a nurse, according to the National Association of School Nurses. This leaves a larger margin of error, and more potential to miss cases or signs of an outbreak. If possible, schools should make sure medical care is on hand, especially if located in an at-risk area of the country. 

Nurses also help a school manage medical records, in addition to medical care - a practice that is absolutely crucial when it comes to preventing measles outbreak on campus. Health records from a student’s primary care doctor or other healthcare provider are an immunization record. Keeping an updated database of student medical records, whether this is managed by a nursing unit or school administrators, is a critical part of a safety plan that will prevent further spread of diseases.

Related Blog: What to Look for in a School Nurse App

Managing Communications During A Public Health Emergency

Communication is essential to conduct a proper quarantine and inform the community potential of potential risks. The faster a school can inform students, parents, teachers, and staff of a potential outbreak, the less exposure the school will have as a whole. The schools best prepared to handle a public health emergency will be those who have a comprehensive emergency communication plan in place. If teachers, nurses, staff, and administrators, understand a protocol for handling dire medical emergencies, the more likely they will be able to properly handle communication and manage student safety. A panic button app can be an effective tool for managing safety in the event of a medical emergency. The app, unlike a traditional physical panic button, allows the user to designate that the situation requires medical care. In addition to letting the first response team know that medical equipment is necessary, the app informs them of the exact location of the classroom and student.

A panic button app is proven to be an effective tool during serious medical emergencies. In March, 2019, an Arkansas teacher deployed the Rave Panic Button to take immediate action to call for medical attention when a student had a seizure and her breathing and heart stopped. The teacher was able to expedite response by activating the panic button. Not only were teachers, staff, and emergency responders able to ensure the student regained consciousness in the classroom, the emergency app made it possible for police to block intersections so the ambulance could reach campus more quickly. The situation shows how the app is able to shorten response time, eliminate confusion or miscommunications, and improve safety for those in the immediate area by providing further information. 

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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