UPDATE: Flu sends 120 4-H'ers home from state fair
FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. - The magic ended five days early for Liberty BayBridge and about 120 of her fellow 4-H'ers.
A performer in a 4-H arts troupe putting on a show entitled "Magic," BayBridge found herself leaving the Minnesota State Fair 4-H Building dormitory Thursday, a precaution after four of her colleagues and a staff member came down with the H1N1 flu, originally called swine flu.
"I don't like leaving at all," the 18-year-old Ortonville youth said as the Twin Cities media crowded around her following word of the fair flu outbreak.
On the other hand, she added, fair and 4-H officials did the right thing in sending home sick youths and those who may have been infected. "I totally respect the decision."
The 4-H'ers sent home Thursday came from across Minnesota, the youth organization's leaders said.
Seventeen 4-H'ers went home sick with flu-like illnesses, but not everyone was tested to determine whether they had H1N1. Because of fears the outbreak could spread, the Minnesota Health Department recommended that those with close contact to the sick youths be sent home, too.
After they cleared out of the dormitory at mid-afternoon, 4-H program leader Dorothy McCargo Freeman said, the dorm was sanitized so a new group of 4-H'ers already scheduled to arrive later Thursday would be safe.
Luke Brekke, 13, of Scott County was not one of those sent home, but felt their pain.
"Some people here are a little bummed out," he said.
And, with reporters and cameras hovering nearby, he added: "This is being made a bigger deal than it really is."
Health officials agreed that the fair outbreak was not serious, but said the high-profile problem is a precursor to what Minnesotans should expect in schools around the state.
"This is easily transmitted," Health Commissioner Dr. Sanne Magnan said of the H1N1 flu virus, which is different than the seasonal flu variety that also will spread this fall and winter. "There are going to be more cases."
Like most who get this variety of flu, which has become a worldwide pandemic, the Minnesota 4-H'ers are not thought to be seriously ill. H1N1 tends to affect young people much more than those older than 50. Health experts think that is because those born before 1957 have come in contact with a similar flu strain and built up some immunity.
However, one of three Minnesota deaths was of an elderly victim.
Magnan and fair officials said the 4-H outbreak does not make the fair any more dangerous.
"People should come out to the fair," the commissioner proclaimed.
Fair Executive Vice President Jerry Hammer said he has not seen a worse flu-like outbreak in his long tenure.
Assistant Health Commissioner John Stine said the fair does a good job of protecting 4-H members' health, but there only is so much that can be done to prevent the fast-spreading disease.
More nurses will be added to the 4-H staff for the rest of the fair, which ends Monday, to check each 4-H member for flu symptoms twice a day.
Two programs that normally run the length of the fair were canceled because their members went home.
The Arts-In program, which included two "Magic" performances a day, and the youth group's Ambassador program were the flu victims.
BayBridge said "Magic" performers were told earlier this week to end their hand-shaking sessions after shows, a precaution as the first 4-H'ers became ill.
The 17 sick 4-H'ers, with fever, cough and sore throats, began going home earlier in the 12-day fair, but H1N1 was not confirmed until early Thursday.
"Our commitment is to keep our 4-H youth safe..." Freeman said. "We will continue to monitor our youth very closely and will take appropriate action when necessary. With the exception of some leadership and performing arts programs, all other 4-H activities will continue as originally scheduled."
After the decision to stop the two programs, those involved were isolated to prevent them spreading the flu. "They are talking through this," Freeman added.
BayBridge said she was "very sad" to have to leave early, after months of work getting ready for "Magic," which was designed to "find the magic side of you."
Brekke, whose sister was among those not sick but sent home, is a fan of "Magic" performers. "They are some of the most awesomest people."
Every year, some 4-H'ers staying at the fair get sick every year with coughs and sore throats, BayBridge said.
The 4-H'ers were told Thursday morning that they had to go home.
"It's disappointing to know your friends got sick like that," BayBridge said, because they became "the best of friends" while preparing for the performance.
After being told it was time to go, BayBridge's mother, Penny, joined her and loaded up a cartload of things Big Stone County 4-H'ers took to the fair. As the mother pulled, Baybridge pushed the cart to a vehicle as they began their premature journey back to their western Minnesota home.