Officials speculate a virus may more likely be the cause of reports of carbon monoxide poisonings at Cranston East.
The saga commenced around 11:30 last Wednesday night, when the Cranston School administration received a call from Hasbro Hospital about one of their students, a girl from Cranston East, having dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in their system and being rushed to the hospital.
School went on as normal the next day, Thursday, because the school department didn’t know how the student may have been exposed to carbon monoxide – and there wasn’t much time to cancel school anyway.
The next day, according to Cranston Schools Chief Operating Officer Ray Votto, the fire department was called into the school to do precautionary testing for carbon monoxide.
When the department came around 11 a.m., according to Fire Chief McKenna, they didn’t find any hazardous levels of CO2. Votto said that they tested the cafeteria, gymnasium, and kitchens, among other areas, and didn’t find any abnormal levels.
The fire department tested because there are no carbon monoxide detectors in the school, according to Chief McKenna. Rhode Island law does not require detectors to be in schools.
Later in the day on Thursday, however, both students and staff began reporting symptoms in line with carbon monoxide poisoning, including dizziness, nausea, and headaches. The fire department rushed back to the school to do testing, this time primarily in the gymnasium because that’s where most of the affected people were reporting symptoms from, according to Votto.
“Carbon monoxide levels were not elevated other than the one student admitted to the hospital Wednesday night,” Chief McKenna said about the tests they ran on these students and staff. “The rest of them just had symptoms of elevated carbon monoxide. Levels between 7 and 10 are when it’s abnormal [which is tested through a blood sample], but everything can else can just be had by standing next to a running car.”
Nevertheless, a decision was made after this incident to close up school for the rest of the day, canceling all school activities and the girls’ volleyball practice set to be in the gymnasium, according to Votto. He said, “The coach and three to four of the players weren’t feeling well.”
In total, the fire department was at Cranston East five times from Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon, according to Votto. Of the 1,700 students in the school, around 40 reported symptoms, three of whom were taken to the hospital and all of whom were advised to see their family physician. Of the 150 staff, 12 reported symptoms and 12 more had abnormal [but not dangerous] levels of carbon monoxide, according to Votto.
Another wrinkle of the saga: there was a blood drive on Wednesday in the gymnasium of the school. People who did not give blood were reporting symptoms, suggesting that the drive didn’t have any cause on the outbreak, but there was speculation that it could have been carbon monoxide fumes coming from the drive’s bus that caused the symptoms. The blood from the drive couldn’t be used because of the reports.
And because of the large number of reports and strangeness of the situation, Cranston East was closed on Friday so the school department could bring in an outside company, Occupational Testing, to check the levels.
“There wasn’t a speck of carbon monoxide in that building,” Votto said Monday morning. “We tested every inch of it.”
A letter was sent to parents on Friday after the company was brought in to test about the situation, which told them that “a certified industrial hygienist has found no evidence of CO at Cranston East.”
As for the more than 50 people who reported symptoms last week, Votto said only one parent reached out to the school department about symptoms and that attendance was normal on Monday.
Votto even said on Monday that the girls volleyball coach, Meaghan McGonagle, wasn’t feeling well Thursday but was able to coach the game Friday afternoon, which was at Tolman.
The results from the testing were positive, but still don’t explain why so many people came down with symptoms and some showed abnormal levels of CO in their systems.
Votto said Tuesday that “it seems like a virus has all of the sudden sprung up on folks,” because he observed that walk-in clinics were buzzing this weekend and a number of parents were out because their own children were sick.
“If there are still high numbers of people with symptoms this week, we’ll probably end up contacting the Department of Health and see if they can gives us some direction,” Votto said. “I remember when we had the norovirus at Gladstone, we had really high absentee one day and the kids and teachers were getting sick. The DOH contacted some parents and doctors and they recommended we close down and clean everything up.”
The fire department was called into East on Monday afternoon, but that ended up being a false alarm, according to Votto.
If symptoms continue to persist, a virus may be labelled the cause, and then East will be dealing with a whole new issue. But for now, school is back in session and the unusual incident last week is in the rear view mirror.