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By PETER H. MILLIKEN



Published: Tue, May 29, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



By PETER H. MILLIKEN

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

BELOIT -- Grief-stricken parents in this small, close-knit community are expressing anger and skepticism after the weekend deaths of two West Branch High School students here, apparently from meningococcal disease.

Schools Superintendent Louis Ramunno announced this morning that classes will not be conducted this week because of the deaths "and the uncertainty gripping our community."

Classes will resume Monday. A staff meeting is scheduled for school employees at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the high school cafeteria, Ramunno said.

In the dark? "I think they're keeping us in the dark and not telling us all the facts," said Debby Davis of Knox Township, Columbiana County. She was referring to an emergency public information meeting conducted by school and health officials Monday evening at the high school.

Parents were upset that the Mahoning County Board of Health had initially told school officials that despite the death of Jonathan Stauffer, 15, a freshman, Saturday, there was no health threat to other students.

On Monday, another student, Kelly Coblentz, 16, a sophomore, died, apparently from the same disease.

Same bus: Davis' two daughters, Ashley Fannin, an eighth-grader at West Branch Junior High School, and Kasey Davis, an afternoon kindergartner at Knox Elementary School, ride the same school bus that was ridden by Stauffer.

She noted that the bus remained in the driver's driveway Monday despite promises from school officials that all buses would be disinfected. She said Ashley sat daily with Jonathan en route to school, including Friday.

School officials have told the driver to stay out of the bus, and the driver's family has been treated with antibiotics, she said. "Just be honest with us. We can deal with it if we have the truth. Don't treat us like we're infants and we can't handle it. These are our children's lives. Two very good friends of our family are now dead," she said.

"They're being indecisive in some of the things that they're saying. They told us that it's not meningitis, but they were passing out paperwork telling us to read it, and it's on meningitis," said Tammie Robison of Goshen Township. Robison's daughter, Danielle Delp, is a seventh-grader at the junior high school, and her son, Derek Delp, is a kindergartner at Goshen Center Elementary School.

Another parent, Robert Rinehart, suggested using snow days left over from last winter and canceling school for the entire week.

Crowd gathers: A capacity crowd of about 1,600 gathered for the meeting in the gymnasium to hear information from doctors and school and public health officials. The event was covered by all Youngstown-based TV stations and several Cleveland TV stations.

Stauffer, who had recently moved to Alliance, died Saturday afternoon in Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron, where he had been taken by helicopter Friday after first going to Alliance Community Hospital. He participated in football, wrestling and track at school.

Coblentz, from Butler Township, Columbiana County, died Monday morning in Forum Health Tod Children's Hospital, where she had been taken by helicopter after first being admitted to Salem Community Hospital Sunday. She participated in basketball, soccer and volleyball at school.

Both Alliance and Salem community hospitals were inundated with people seeking antibiotic treatment.

Alliance Community Hospital was providing the antibiotics free. Sam Donohoe, human resources director, estimated that about 800 people received them over an 18-hour period ending at 10 p.m. Monday. He said one West Branch High School student was in precautionary isolation there.

People line up: At Salem Community Hospital, hundreds of people received antibiotics since the outbreak began, said Lisa Chamberlin, assistant director of public relations. SCH experienced "a full house throughout the day" Monday, she said. Charges at SCH vary among patients, depending upon their age, symptoms and tests required, she said.

When school officials canceled the junior and senior high school band members' participation, a Memorial Day parade along U.S. Route 62 was canceled, but veterans still conducted a ceremony in Highland Memorial Cemetery at U.S. Route 62 and 12th Street.

The West Branch High School building was open for grief counseling from guidance counselors and clergy members and for information about meningococcal disease from public health officials, both until 3 p.m.

Sebring public schools, Real Life Christian Academy and the Mahoning County Educational Service Center's preschool at Trinity Church in Sebring also were closed today.

The Ohio Department of Health has recommended that students in grades nine through 12, faculty members and staff at West Branch High School obtain antibiotic therapy.

The Mahoning County Health Department urged anyone who came in direct contact with respiratory secretions of either of the students who died or anyone who had contact with the students to obtain antibiotic therapy at Alliance Community Hospital.

Symptoms: Public health officials said in a news release that anyone with symptoms such as fever, headache, nausea, malaise and vomiting should obtain immediate medical assistance.

"You cannot pass it on to somebody else unless you, yourself, get sick with the bacteria," said Dr. John Venglarcik, director of pediatric infectious diseases at Tod.

Symptoms typically arise within 72 hours after exposure to an infected person, but could take as long as 14 days to develop, said Dr. John Bower, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Akron.

Schools Superintendent Lou Ramunno said both Stauffer and Coblentz attended a Friday afternoon picnic at the high school. Stauffer played three-on-three basketball, and Coblentz also may have participated, Ramunno said, adding that they may have shared a water bottle there.

Ramunno said he plans to open the elementary and junior high school buildings Wednesday, but he wasn't sure about the high school. He said public health officials have assured him that the schools are safe for occupancy.

It appears very likely both students died of meningococcal disease because of the sudden onset and rapid progression of symptoms and rapid deterioration of their condition, said Diana Colaianni, director of nursing for the Mahoning County Department of Health. She said both infections were bacterial.

Two forms: Meningococcal disease takes two forms, either of which can be fatal, she explained. When it infects the blood, the condition is referred to as meningococcemia. When it progresses from the blood into the fluid surrounding the spinal cord and the brain, it becomes meningitis. Colaianni said she understood that spinal fluid tests on Stauffer and Coblentz were negative for meninigitis.

The high school has about 850 students. The West Branch School District, which covers parts of Mahoning, Columbiana and Portage counties, and has the high school, junior high and five elementary schools, has about 2,600 pupils. The last scheduled day of classes is June 6, with commencement set for June 10.

Besides the Ohio and Mahoning County health departments, the outbreak was being investigated by the health departments of Columbiana and Stark counties and Alliance and Canton.

Walter Duzzny, Mahoning County emergency management director, appeared with a large contingent of area police, fire and ambulance personnel at the meeting, saying they had many "what if" questions about the outbreak.

Davis said she was part of a group of about 20 parents who attended a meeting Sunday between public health officials and the board of education.

"They made us sit in the cafeteria while they met with the health officials, then came in and talked to us, and contradicted a lot of things that they said. I left there uncomfortable," Davis said, adding that her daughters have been treated with antibiotics.




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