MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
An infection called MRSA has been in the news lately. It's a form of staph infection and it's hard to cure because it doesn't respond to several antibiotics. Health officials announced last week that MRSA infections are a lot more common than previously thought. When school kids get MRSA infections, one response is to deep-clean the school. But educating students about hygiene and infection might be a better answer.
Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.
ANNA SALE: West Virginia's school superintendents just happened to be meeting last week, when concern about MRSA reached a fever pitch. A space was quickly carved out on the agenda at the last minute for Rebecca King, the school health coordinator for the state.
REBECCA KING: Come down here to talk a little bit about the facts of MRSA, and that it's nothing to be alarmed about, that it has been in the community for years.
SALE: Her advice was surprisingly basic - go over hand-washing techniques and general hygiene with students, make sure your custodians are diligent with routine cleaning, and pay particular attention to locker rooms, where students are most likely to have skin-to-skin contact.
KING: And basically, research has shown that furniture is not a concern.
SALE: That's the same direction West Virginia's director of Infectious Disease and Epidemiology is handing out. D. Bixler says that changing behavior is the key to prevention.
DANAE BIXLER: Not overusing antibiotics, practicing good hygiene, keep the wounds covered, washing hands thoroughly and frequently. That's probably what's going to make most of the difference.
SALE: Bixler and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that only surfaces that have recently touched infected, open wounds can pass on MRSA. But some superintendents getting phone calls from concerned parents think that a little, extra cleaning can't hurt.
DANIEL METZ: It does cause some panic within the community and within parents. And we want them to react to it.
SALE: Daniel Metz is school superintendent in a rural county in West Virginia. He had two students hospitalized from MRSA this school year after they didn't immediately respond to antibiotics. They've since been released.
METZ: We believe our buildings are clean, okay? But there's a difference between cleanliness and to disinfect part of the school.
SALE: The county has alerted teachers, bus drivers, parents and students to be on the lookout for open wounds that need Band-Aids. But the county also brought in an extra custodian in each of its three schools. Their sole responsibility is busting bacteria.
CONNIE HALL: They call me the germ lady.
SALE: At Wirt County Middle School, that's Connie Hall. She's been hired to disinfect the school from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. for a week and a half.
HALL: I have a bucket laying off, eight hours a day.
SALE: It's not hard to find Hall. The smell of bleach follows her throughout the building.
HALL: They just, you know, told me to use the bleach water in just whatever kids could touch. So...
SALE: She hones in on desktops and pencil sharpeners, doorknobs and vending machine buttons. After a rubdown with a rag of bleach water, she goes back and sprays everything with a special antibacterial spray manufactured for use in hospitals.
HALL: Surface disinfectant, deodorant. It's supposed to hop on all that.
SALE: There's staph right there on the label.
HALL: Mm-hmm. Okay.
During a class changeover, fingers rubbed all over the locker combinations that Connie Hall wiped down minutes before.
HALL: I just cleaned it.
SALE: She tries to wipe down each desktop and stairway railing twice during the school day, and she makes sure to get both the girls' and boys' locker rooms at least once.
HALL: Is anyone in here?
SALE: Hall takes care to go over the locker rooms, shower stalls, faucets and benches. Still, she can only get at so much. You can see the untouched sneakers and gym clothes peek into the holes in the locker door as she wipes them down.
SALE: Probably no germs out here on the outside and all kinds of germs right in there.
HALL: Then I'll spray (unintelligible). I'll just maybe slip under and get in there because I don't think it would hurt anything.
SALE: Though public health officials say this kind of comprehensive cleaning is not the answer to containing MRSA long-term, at least for the rest of this class period, this locker room is free of surface germs. And it'll get a daily disinfecting through Friday, when Connie Hall's special germ lady gig comes to an end.
For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.
NORRIS: NPR's health editor, Joe Neel, has been getting a lot of questions about MRSA infections. You can find them and his answers at npr.org.