Staph infection hits Williston school

Child treated and back in class

By Greg Duggan
Observer staff

A Williston student who had a staph infection has returned to school, and even as the district awaits the results of a test for a second student, school personnel and state and local health officials say there should be little health concern.

On Monday, parents received a notice from the school district nurse Kathy Shea that said, “ Williston School District has had its first case of confirmed MRSA.”

MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a type of bacterium commonly known as staph with resistance to typical antibiotics including methicillin, ampicillin and other types of penicillin. If the infection is not identified and treated with other antibiotics, it can lead to more serious infections, pneumonia or blood stream infections, according to Dr. Cort Lohff, Vermont Health Department’s state epidemiologist.

Shea did not give many details about the case and did not identify the school in which the child is a student, but said the health office referred a child to a physician last week. The confirmation of staph came back on Monday.

“People get understandably hyper about this. There are two schools in the district. The message I’m trying to get through is to be proactive and wash hands,” Shea said. “We’ll never know where it came from. Staph is everywhere.”

Distric Principal Walter Nardelli said the child had returned to school earlier this week after being put on medication that could combat the infection.

“Once (the child) is on antibiotics, (he or she) is fine to return to school,” Shea said.

Nardelli said the schools are waiting on the results of a test for a second child, who the principal identified as a friend of the first.

Once the schools had identified a potential case of MRSA it brought in custodians over the weekend to clean common areas, phones, door handles, railings and the tops of desks, according to Nardelli. Buses were cleaned this week, and Nardelli and Shea said the district has switched to a stronger cleaning agent.

The health office will no longer provide students with extra clothing it had available.

Staff was reminded to frequently wash hands, and encourage students to do the same.

An adequate response

Though not required to do so unless it faces an outbreak, the school reported the staph infection to the state Department of Health.

State and local officials believe the school reacted appropriately to the staph infection.

“The health department and nurse and school have this under control at this point,” said Terry Macaig, Williston’s health officer and Selectboard chairman. “The things they’re doing are responsible things. Disinfecting, clothing not being shared, physical contact limited.”

Lohff said that although MRSA exists and can be spread from person to person, “the likelihood that it’s passed in a school setting is low.” He identified ways the infection could be passed as skin-to-skin contact, sharing towels, razors or other personal items.

“Generally, in a school itself where there’s not a degree of risk from those sorts of activities, the risk is low for other people getting an infection from one person.”

Lohff recommended washing hands and covering any open cuts or lesions.

A local pediatrician, Ann Wittpenn of University Pediatrics in Williston, had similar recommendations.

“The important thing is to step back from all the anxiety developing over this, and go back to good basic hygiene. Good basic skin care,” Wittpenn said. “Staph aureus has been around for years.”

Wittpenn also recommended washing hands – which at this time of year she said can also help prevent the common flu.

Parents who the Observer attempted to contact did not wish to comment or did not return phone calls by press deadline.

Shea said that anyone with questions about staph should contact their physician. Symptoms, according to Lohff, include any evidence of a skin infection, which could look like a sore, be red, have pus or be painful.

“Like any other skin infections, it should be brought to the attention of a child’s healthcare provider,” Lohff said.

More information about staph infections are available online at