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Program uses tech to help schools detect illness outbreaks faster

Virus Outbreak Flu Season
Posted at 2:34 PM, Oct 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-19 19:02:57-04

As winter approaches, schools are preparing for a number of illnesses in addition to COVID-19.

“Since we especially didn't see a flu season last season, we’re on the ready for a potentially severe influenza season. Particularly because of circulation of COVID,” said Dr. Sara Saporta-Keating, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, Colorado Springs.

But schools are more prepared than before after balancing education with pandemic safety.

“Push this button and it will turn on -- like this -- and if it's green that means you’re good,” 7-year-old Lexi Ansardi said. She is a second grader at Centennial Elementary School. Every morning, she checks her temperature and with the help of her mom, Ann. She can keep track of her health on an app.

“I am concerned about flu, COVID of course, but this app, it actually gives you ideas about what might be happening with your student depending on the fever,” Ann Ansardi said. “It really gives the parents a way of knowing what's going on in the building in terms of health.”

Most families at this elementary school are using these thermometers consistently through something called the FLUency program -- a free program to reduce the spread of illness in schools through health technology company Kinsa.

“It is an initiative to stop the spread of illness in classrooms to help the entire community know more about what symptoms and illnesses are going around,” Nita Nehru, vice president of communications at Kinsa, said.

“On a population level, we’re able to understand where symptoms are starting and how fast they are spreading,” she explained. Nehru said the app provides anonymous, aggregated information on what symptoms and illnesses are going around in any given classroom, school, or community.

“It’s a way of reducing some of your clinic load for school nurses,” she said. “Schools, right now, are really acting as that first line of defense, and that’s just not sustainable.”

With the app, it’s easier for schools to see multiple cases of illness at the onset, leading to more accurate decisions about when to temporarily go to remote learning or distance kids more.

“Once you put the app in, you have a running tally of what your illness and your child has looked like…and you take that right to the doctor with you,” Ann Ansardi said.

Pediatric doctors are prepared for what they could see this season.

“What we have been doing to mitigate COVID can also be helpful for mitigating flu. So the first thing is good hand washing, another thing is making sure that if you're ill you don't go to work or school. And then getting vaccinated if you're able to against the flu particularly, as well as COVID,” Dr. Saporta-Keating said. She said she is also seeing higher rates of more common respiratory viruses.

“Usually we see those later in the season, so really it's important for schools again to be making sure they understand what’s going on,” she explained.

Centennial Elementary School principal Kim Noyes said the FLUency program has been a huge help in detecting potential outbreaks.

“The vast majority of our school and our families are using the digital thermometer and I think that has led to very low incidents of illness in our school,” she said.

All it takes is a little participation from students and families.

“If one person is sick, a whole bunch of other people can get sick. So if you're sick, this helps,” Lexi said.

As we move into the winter months, Noyes feels prepared. “We can't control the future but we can take every single preventative step possible,” she said.