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MONDAY, AUG. 6 — At least two people were diagnosed with influenza following exposure to virus-infected pigs at the Fowlerville Family Fair. And officials are keeping a sharp eye on others who have reported symptoms.
Additional tests this week will confirm whether the off-season spread can be tied to the six-day fair, as reports of flu-like symptoms continue to roll into her office, Livingston County Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Lindsay Gestro said. It’s still largely unclear how many people could have been exposed to the virus, she said.
"The testing takes a length of time," Gestro added. "We're still checking for secondary cases. These people could've gone to the fair and exposed themselves to others. Of course, we're monitoring for that.”
The 4-H pig barn caught the attention of local and state health officials last month after several exhibition pigs tested positive for an uncommon, influenza virus often labeled as “Swine Flu.” Officials previously said the chances for human exposure were slim, but concerns grew when guests called to report symptoms of their own.
County Medical Director Donald Lawrenchuk said there haven’t been many confirmed cases of pig-to-human transmission. Officials at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accordingly, were “very interested in this particular outbreak.” Any off-season flu reports were “very suspect,” Lawrenchuk said previously.
Teenage 4-H exhibitors on July 26 noticed about a dozen pigs set for auction, acting strange and looking drowsy. Officials quarantined the sickly swine while they assessed the developing situation. A troop of health officials, flanked by fair directors and 4-H leaders, quickly arrived on scene to investigate.
Every test came back positive for swine flu later the next day. Fair directors kept the pig barn closed for the final two days of the fair, but didn’t feel a need to halt ticket sales to the rest of the grounds. Signs to caution guests about what was happening inside the pig barn were also unnecessary.
The risk — although more widespread than imagined — was sufficiently “minimized” at the time, officials said. State health officials “weren’t that worried about it,” added Robert Redinger, president of the fair’s board of directors. And it didn’t seem to affect attendance as thousands bustled inside.
County officials sent notice to local media about the pigs, but relied on state officials to spread the word about the subsequent, confirmed cases of human exposure. A sign indicating the pig barn’s closure was placed by the doorway. But Reddinger found it unnecessary to warn guests standing in line, waiting to pay the $6 entrance fee.
"By law, we didn't have to,” added board member Gordon Munsell.
Swine flu is a respiratory disease that can cause “high levels” of illness in pigs but usually few deaths, according to the CDC. Sporadic transmission to humans has occurred, usually among farmhands or children playing with pigs at the fair. And limited cases of person-to-person spread have also been reported in previous outbreaks.
Munsell said the concept of closing the fair — after crowds of people had already checked in earlier in the week — wasn’t even discussed when officials generated an action plan. The odds of transmission were too slim. Gestro said the risks were already locked behind a barn door.
The virus needed to incubate for days before it could develop into an active contagion. Fairgoers could have contracted the flu in the barn, took a spin on the Tilt-A-Whirl and inadvertently passed it to every subsequent rider to hop aboard, but officials said the chances were small enough to take the risk.
Besides, a closure could’ve nixed the rodeo or the monster truck show. And those tickets sold at $10 a pop.
James Averill, state veterinarian and deputy director of the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, previously labeled the risk as “minimal to almost negligible.” The spread was possible “if you play out every single option,” he suggested. Those options, days later, became a reality for his office.
Two pigs remained quarantined last week but officials said they have since been hauled off to the butcher after their temperatures cooled down, much like the other 176 already auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The Livingston County Health Department emphasized the virus cannot spread through food products.
As for those showing symptoms? “Some people have talked themselves into it,” Redinger suggested previously. He didn’t return calls for clarification.
Still, those who suspect they may have also been exposed to the virus are encouraged to report it to the health department at (517) 552-6882.
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for continued updates as they become available.