An eight-year-old Nokomis Elementary student is undergoing a series of rabies shots over the next week after she suffered what may have been a bat bite while using the bathroom stall at Nokomis.
Jessica Wetherell, a third-grader at the school, said she was using the stall on Sept. 24 and had just opened the door to leave when the bat flew up in her face and bit her on the arm. According to her mother, Gina Wetherell, Jessica told her she initially thought it was a bird until she realized she’d been bitten.
Jessica, whom her mother describes as a low-key child who doesn’t kick up much of a fuss, only told her friends and went home that day like business as usual.
It wasn’t until the next day at parent-teachers conference, Wetherelll said, that other parents approached her and asked about the bite. Jessica’s teacher said some mention was made of it from the other students, but she “poo-pooed” it, according to Wetherell.
That night Wetherell took Jessica to Stony Brook Hospital. As part of state health guidelines, the hospital treated Jessica for rabies, even though they didn’t have the bat in possession to confirm presence of the illness.
According to Lauren Barlow, nurse and epidemiologist for the Suffolk County Health Department, the vaccine treatment is a series of four shots given over a two week period. In addition, shots of immune globulin are injected directly into the bite wound.
“The child reported it as a bat bite so we are treating it as such,” Barlow said. “A concern is that [rabies] is potentially fatal if it is incubating. This treatment is effective in preventing that from happening.”
Jessica is now about halfway through her treatments, but the county health department also made recommendations to Sachem School Superintendent James Nolan and the Nokomis Elementary building administrators. One such recommendation is to bring in a wildlife professional to track and confirm the presence of bats that might have nested in the ceiling between the boys and girls room at the school. Photographs of the bathroom show gaps in the ceiling where the critters might have slipped in.
“Summertime is when bats bring their families in,” Barlow said. “And they can easily weasel their way into small spaces. We’re not too far away from the end of August.”
Superintendent Nolan said the district is following up on the health department’s recommendations, which may also include hiring trappers to capture and remove the bats. However, he said, so far there doesn’t seem to be any sight of the creatures.
“Our guys came, they looked all over,” Nolan said. “So far we haven’t found anything. There’s no droppings, there’s no nothing. But we want to make sure.”
Wetherell, a native to the Sachem area who attended Nokomis herself, said she’s unhappy with the way the school’s principal, Gloria Flynn, has handled the situation. According to Wetherell, Flynn dismissed the notion that bats were in the bathrooms.
“My first phone call I could hardly get a word in,” Wetherell said. “She was like ‘oh no, there’s no bats here it must have happened somewhere else.’ But then the more she spoke, her story would start to show that maybe she had a little more background than she was letting on.”
Through an employee at Nokomis’ main office, Flynn has declined to speak with Patch about the incident and has deferred all media inquiries to central administration.
Wetherell did say that building workers tightened the grates and sealed up some cracks in the girl’s bathroom since the incident, but as of late last week the boy’s bathroom still has openings. She added that she is meeting with a lawyer, but she hasn’t decided yet whether she wants to pursue legal action against the school.
As for Jessica, she’s on the mend.
“Her arm is sore,” her mother said. “But the bite is healing up. She’s more sore from all the injections. She has to go back two more times.”
Nurse Barlow said it is fairly uncommon for bats to become aggressive enough to attack, and only a single-digit percentage of them actually carry the rabies virus, which can only be transmitted through the saliva. However, she urges anyone who might trap a bat to hand it over to health department officials.
“It is always a concern when people find them in their homes because they let them loose,” Barlow said. “But if we can catch the bat and test for rabies it’s better. A number of deaths have occurred in which the victim never reported having come into contact with them.”