The performers in the Minnesota State Fair's annual 4-H musical knew something was awry earlier this week, when they were told to skip the tradition of greeting audience members with a handshake after the show.
They were instructed that a "Hello'' would suffice and that they should avoid touching anyone.
The rumor was, kids were getting sick. Soon, two rows of bunkbeds holding the sick were isolated from the rest of the group, extra mattresses brought in and folded up to block them from the view of others. An empty row of bunkbeds created a buffer zone.
By Tuesday and Wednesday, the sick were being sent home. By Thursday morning, the problem went public. Fair officials sent a few hundred 4-H'ers packing, after it was confirmed that four students had been diagnosed with the swine flu, and that 12 others and one adult staffer also had flu-like symptoms.
The news forced many 4-H students to scramble to leave the fair earlier than they had planned, and they spent the morning hauling out clothes and gear in plastic tubs, luggage and garbage bags while fairgoers walked past. The 120 4-H Ambassadors and Arts-In students, who stage and perform the musical, were hit especially hard, since they were scheduled to stay until the end of the fair on Monday. 4-H students in other programs cycle through the building for stints lasting a few days.
"It's very disappointing for all of us," said Liberty BayBridge, who performed in the musical, "Magic." "This program is very special."
Her mother, Penny BayBridge, came to pick up her three teenage daughters, all of whom are in the arts program.
"When we met the girls this morning, they were in tears," said BayBridge, who lives across the border in Big Stone City, S.D., and whose kids participate in the 4-H club in Ortonville, Minn. "They look forward to this all year long. But in a case like this, you have to do what you need to do."
She said that two of her daughters were feeling rundown but wasn't sure if they were sick or simply out of gas.
"This is about the time they start to get worn out," she said. "They're tired and have scratchy throats. We'll have them checked [by a doctor], but it might just be the result of performing all week."
Sad, but no panic
Dorothy McCargo Freeman, 4-H state program leader, said things got "very emotional'' when the kids heard the news.
4-H students said that although the mood was somber, no one was panicked by the flu news.
"This thing is bound to happen in a large public gathering," said student Luke Brekke, of Shakopee. "It's better that people go home than more people get sick."
It's uncertain how the flu found its way into the fair, partly because symptoms can appear one to seven days after exposure. What is known is that some of the first 4-H students, livestock competitors who stayed in the dorm, developed flu-like symptoms after they left Aug. 30, McCargo Freeman said. Some of those students' animals also went home sick, said John Stine, assistant state health commissioner, adding that such illness is somewhat normal for the fair.
It's unclear if any of those students have the swine flu, also known as H1N1, and of the 17 who most recently got sick, not all will be tested for the virus because identifying it rarely affects its treatment, Stine said. (He said the four confirmed cases were tested only because officials expected that a flu outbreak would raise questions about H1N1.)
A vaccine for the swine flu won't be available until October. Identifying the strain is most helpful for at-risk groups, such as pregnant women, asthmatics, diabetics and people with chronic medical conditions.
"Overall, we don't encourage people to get tested for the virus," Stine said. "We know it's out there, and there are other strains of the virus out there. Most people are going to experience a fever, a sore throat, muscle aches -- the typical flu symptoms -- and they make a full recovery."
A lot of 4-H'ers affected
In addition to the 120 4-H Ambassadors and Arts-In students who stay in the dorm throughout the fair's duration, five groups of 4-H students (including two groups of livestock competitors) numbering in the hundreds rotate through the building. About 400 new 4-H students were expected to move into the dorm Thursday after workers sanitized surfaces.
Parents were asked to screen their children for fevers, sore throats, coughs and exposure to sick people before sending them aboard school buses to the fair, McCargo Freeman said. Nurses screened the students again when they arrived, and screenings are expected twice daily, Stine said.
Fair is 'perfectly safe'
"Right now, we are seeing what the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is seeing -- a very rapid increase in H1N1 infections among children and young adults," said Michael Osterholm, a former state epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infections Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. "Whenever you have a congregation of these groups, you see this developing."
Osterholm said there is no need for panic and people should use common sense and not go to the fair if they feel ill.
"We also strongly urge that you not postpone your life. I've already been to fair myself," he said.
McCargo Freeman said this is the first time something like this has happened at the fair, but the 4-H had a plan ready because of incidents at summer camps, including a June flu outbreak at a Minnesota camp that resulted in the national Muscular Dystrophy Association canceling dozens of its remaining summer camps.
Jerry Hammer, the fair's general manager, said he considers the fair to still be "perfectly safe."
"It's a safe as going to any store or the Mall of America or even your neighborhood park," he said. "Follow the advice of the experts: wash your hands well, cover your coughs, use common sense. If you don't feel good, stay home."
Many fairgoers were unfazed by the swine flu diagnosis.
"I come to the fair every single year," aid Cheryl Tovsen, of Prior Lake. "Nothing's going to keep me away from the fair."
Jeremy Marx, 41, of Apple Valley, was on his way to see the 4-H musical when he heard it was canceled -- which he took particularly hard because he was involved in the musical in the 1980s.
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