Using hand sanitizer and coughing into elbows might be fighting more than just the flu in area schools.
At a time of year when schools typically see higher absences from the norovirus stomach bug, absences have stayed average, said Joy Miller, an epidemiologist with the East Central Health District, whose office has been tracking absenteeism rates in Richmond County schools.
"We have not had many reports of that (norovirus)," she said.
In response to the novel influenza A H1N1 virus scare, hand sanitizer has been available throughout schools this year. Students have been encouraged to use it, wash their hands thoroughly and cough or sneeze into their elbows or sleeves to prevent the spread of germs from hand-to-hand contact.
The most recent attendance report for Richmond County schools, from Dec. 7 through Jan. 15, shows average daily attendance was 95.77 percent for elementary schools; 95.44 percent for middle schools; 89.76 percent for high schools; and 97.4 percent for magnet schools.
Miller said February also is when seasonal flu cases typically peak, but "we have not had anything spiking on our radar as far as illnesses that are causing (absenteeism) rates to go up."
The H1N1 virus, she said, had its greatest effect on local absenteeism rates in August and September, but even then few schools saw absences rise significantly above average. Since then, she said, numbers haven't spiked, which could be attributable to many getting the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines.
"Seasonal flu hasn't really shown itself this year, not like it has in the past. Maybe the vaccinations hit it pretty well," she said. "So much attention was made to keep your germs to yourself. ... I think a lot of that helped, too."
Richmond County school board member Jack Padgett, who serves as a school system designee on the local Board of Health, said he's glad to see such cases seemingly under control.
"Really the issue I think is probably some of the publicity (of how to prevent the spread of H1N1)," he said. "We may have prevented a pandemic."
Still, Miller and Padgett cautioned against overconfidence.
Normally, the seasonal flu season ends as spring begins, Miller said, but when it comes to H1N1, "we could easily see it come back... Last year, who knew it was going to come up in April?"
Miller said her office on North Leg Road in Augusta is continuing to offer the H1N1 vaccine and is encouraging people to get it.
"We have a lot of it on hand," she said.