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H1N1 flu sends 120 4-H members home from State Fair

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Liberty BayBridge, 18, of Big Stone
Liberty BayBridge, 19, of Big Stone, S.D., was one of about 120 students in the 4-H program who were sent packing Thursday from the Minnesota State Fair after an H1N1 flu outbreak.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

The Minnesota State Fair Thursday sent home about 120 teens involved in the 4-H program after four students contracted the H1N1 flu virus. 

The news came as school officials across the country are bracing for similar outbreaks. State health officials say the precautions taken at the State Fair will probably repeat themselves in classrooms across Minnesota.

When Liberty BayBridge learned that four of her peers tested positive for the H1N1 virus, she said she felt sadness for her friends, but not anxiety.

"We were not panicked," she said. "It wasn't a panicked situation. But people get sick, and the next step is to take care of it."

The 18-year-old South Dakotan and her two younger sisters were told to pack all of their belongings and move out the 4-H dorm, where they were living in close quarters with the four students who had confirmed H1N1 cases.  

BayBridge, who sang and danced with a 4-H performing-arts group, said she's a bit heartsick about her shortened summer vacation.

"I don't like leaving at all," BayBridge said. "This kind of program is very special. We all work together, we work toward a common goal, [and] we all become the best of friends. So the fact that it has to be cut short this early, it's hard."

"When there's an outbreak, we come up with [suggestions] to limit the transmission."

But she said she can't quibble with the decision from 4-H and fair officials to protect her health.

Before Fair officials canceled the two 4-H programs, 14 students had already gone home sick. The performers, including BayBridge and her sisters, were instructed not to shake hands at the end of their routines, as they normally did. 

Some members complained of sore throats, coughs, and stuffy noses, and reported fevers of up to 103 degrees. That prompted officials to call the Minnesota Health Department for help.

"When there's an outbreak, we come up with recommendations to limit the transmission," said assistant health commissioner John Linc Stine. "We're not preventing the spread of the illness, we're managing the impact of it."

Stine said Fair officials followed the health department's suggestion of not only sending home the kids with possible exposure, but also to have nurses screen about 400 incoming 4-H students for flu symptoms as they arrived at the fair in buses Thursday afternoon. The idea was to make sure the two groups had no contact with each other.

Stine says the Fair was prepared, and handled the outbreak just as summer camps have been doing all season long.

"This is sort of a larger-scale thing because it's the Fair, and it's the 4-H program, but it is indicative of what we will likely see in schools and universities as the school year begins," he said.

The outbreak could also shed light on how adults in charge should help young people cope psychologically.

"We're trying to let them manage their emotions in a way that's healthy," said 4-H State Program Leader Dorothy McCargo Freeman. "Their peers will tend to ridicule them quickly, and they will feel like it's something that they have done. And we know it's not something they have done, it's a circumstance they have found themselves in."

Thirty-six American children have died from the H1N1 virus since it first surfaced in the U.S. five months ago. That's more pediatric deaths than what officials would expect to see from seasonal flu during such a short time frame.

Penny BayBridge
Penny BayBridge, in blue bandana, and her daughter, Liberty, far left, roll the belongings of Liberty and her two sisters from the 4-H building to their pickup truck. The three BayBridge sisters were among 120 4-H teens who were sent home after four of their peers tested positive for the H1N1 flu.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Schools in Minnesota are preparing for H1N1 outbreaks with plans to contact parents and send kids home. The health department is asking schools to report illnesses more vigorously this year. Most students are heading back to school Tuesday. 

Meanwhile, State Fair and Health Department officials are assuring the public that they shouldn't stay away from the Great Minnesota Get-Together. The 4-H children who were exposed to the cases were not allowed to handle food for public consumption, but they were allowed to roam the fairgrounds during their stay.

The quarantined group includes members of the 4-H Arts-In and Ambassador programs, who stayed at the same dormitory together. The members put on 30-minute stage productions, worked as greeters, and helped with 4-H science and technology programs. Most are between 15 and 19 years old. 

The Minnesota Department of Health has cancelled the remainder of the 4-H Arts-In and Ambassador programs scheduled for the State Fair.

All other 4-H activities will continue as originally scheduled.

"Our commitment is to keep our 4-H youth safe," Freeman said. "Minnesota 4-H is very concerned about the health and well-being of its members. We will continue to monitor our youth very closely and will take appropriate action when necessary." 

The fair's general manager, Jerry Hammer, said it's all about common sense.

"Just use your head, as you would anywhere else -- the ball game, Mall of America, or neighborhood park," Hammer said. "If you're not feeling well, stay home, and when you go out wash your hands."

And cover your cough, experts say.

Penny BayBridge, Liberty's mom, says 4-H officials did a good job of contacting parents. As she helped Liberty push a wagon and two rolling drawer sets of stuff to their pickup truck, she said her younger daughters have felt worn out and complained of scratchy throats. 

"They're in tears, they're sad; this is something they look forward to all year long, "she said. It's sad, but you need to do what you need to do for the benefit of the public."

BayBridge said she'll watch them closely for signs of the flu. But whatever happens, they vowed to come back to the State Fair next year.