Someone at Watkins Mill School has been sick with tuberculosis, but there is only a small chance that others at the Gaithersburg school may have been infected, according to Montgomery County health officials.
School officials would not identify the person or say if the victim is a student or a staff member.
The person is being treated and students and staff are no longer exposed to the disease, according to a Feb. 6 letter to parents from county health officer Ulder J. Tillman and Principal Scott Murphy.
Tuberculosis, a contagious bacterial disease, usually affects the lungs and also can affect the brain, kidneys and spine, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention fact sheet sent to parents.
Cindy Edwards, a senior nurse administrator at the county Department of Health and Human Services, said she doesn’t anticipate the individual will have infected others at the school.
Edwards said county officials will look at the individual’s schedule and determine who at the school might have been in close enough contact in late 2013 or early 2014 to warrant testing them for infection.
County health officials will test the individual’s family members, she said.
She said she didn’t have an estimate for how many people might need to be tested as the health department is still investigating.
Watkins Mill has about 1,425 students and 175 staff members, according to county school system spokesman Dana Tofig.
Students and staff would not catch tuberculosis just walking through the hall near the person, Edwards said.
“It does require a pretty significant exposure,” she said. “It has to be repeated and it has to be close exposure.”
The letter to parents said there is a “very small” chance that a student has been infected and that a person would usually need to be in close contact in a small room for about eight hours with the affected individual to become infected.
County officials are recommending that “all students and staff who were in any class or after-school activity with this individual between October 2013 and January 2014” be tested, the letter said.
Students and staff won’t be able to undergo tests to detect infection for about eight to 10 weeks — until late March — because tuberculosis has a long incubation period, Edwards said.
“It’s hard to wait, but there’s science behind why there’s no need to go test this right now,” she said.
In early March, the health department will contact those who should be tested, the letter said.
Edwards said she doesn’t think a person would show symptoms of the disease before the eight- to 10-week period is over.
Anyone exhibiting symptoms of tuberculosis — such as coughing, night sweats or a fever — should contact a doctor, she said.
“If we find kids or staff (that have tuberculosis) at eight to 10 weeks, it’s very treatable,” Edwards said.
The county health department will conduct free blood tests at the school for students at staff, she said.
Because the disease is spread through the air, she said, there’s not much the school can do.
“There’s no particular cleaning that needs to be done,” she said.
In 2012, the most recent year with available data, the entire county had 85 cases of tuberculosis, Edwards said.
Susan Young — president of the school’s parent, teacher and staff association — said “it’s not a thrilling situation,” but she thinks the school has responded well with the help of the county health department.
Young said she doesn’t know how much her son was around the affected individual and that he will get tested only if the health department indicates it is necessary.
She said the school community has remained calm.
“For the most part, I really don’t think there’s a sense of panic at all,” she said.