“Hindsight is twenty-twenty,” the saying goes — and that’s often true. There is no doubt that officials at Butler County Community College had the best interests of students and staff members in mind when they decided Tuesday night to shut down the school’s main campus until Thursday, after receiving word of a single case of methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.
It also bears mentioning that this situation represented uncharted waters for BC3. In the moment, erring on the side of caution surely appealed to college officials. It probably would have appealed to most of us as well.
That doesn’t make the decision any less puzzling. The Pennsylvania Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — both of which BC3 officials say the contacted regarding the MRSA case — advise schools against this kind of response in published and readily-available guidelines on MRSA infections in school and day care settings.
Not only is closing down to “disinfect” usually unnecessary, the organizations say, school officials shouldn’t usually consider community-wide notifications or even hold a student with a MRSA infection out of class or athletic activities.
The bottom line is that this was the wrong call and a potentially problematic overreaction — as Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Butler native and infectious disease physician, pointed out Wednesday on his blog, Tracking Zebra.
“This action will not substantially protect against or change the risk of infection as it is the campus community itself that harbors the microbe,” Adalja wrote Wednesday,
In other words: the question isn’t what happens “if” another case of MRSA comes along; it’s what happens “when” another case comes along. According to the CDC, two in 100 people, or two percent of the population, carry MRSA. This is going to happen again. And that’s where BC3’s decision this time around has the potential to cause problems, Adalja points out.
“When you close the school and clean it out and kind of make a show of force ... it unduly panics people and doesn’t address the root of the problem,” Adalja said Thursday. “It’s (MRSA) not something you can completely eliminate, because it’s in the community.”
Not only is MRSA fairly common, it’s effectively guarded against through simple steps, according to public health officials — keeping an open wound covered and well-dressed; washing your hands; maintaining good personal hygiene in general. That’s precisely why the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health don’t recommend school closures or holding infected students out of class.
The context provided here by Adalja is what’s most important, and a vital component of any public health response by any organization or institution. BC3, in its efforts to respond forcefully to a situation that could have stoked public health concerns, actually might have reinforced those concerns.
“It (the response) actually creates a misperception in the public,” Adalja said, “which I think is harmful.”
Erring on the side of caution is not a bad thing, especially when confronting a circumstance for the first time.
Next time, the school or any similar institution should set a more even-handed example regarding MRSA.