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Camp Pepin cleans up after virus outbreak

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Camp Pepin is being cleaned from bow to stern after students brought an infectious virus with them to annual outdoor education days.

"We've sanitized three times -- a fourth time now by professionals," Red Wing Family YMCA Executive Director Mike Melstad said Friday. The local Y owns and operates the camp located between Stockholm and Pepin.

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Wisconsin and Minnesota health officials believe norovirus, an intestinal bug, caused approximately 30 fifth-graders from Farmington, Minn., to become ill.

"Minnesota Department of Health is in the process of asking campers for stool samples that would be tested to confirm the pathogen," Minnesota Department of Health communications officer Doug Schultz said. Interviewing and testing a group this size will take time and he doesn't anticipate having results until late next week.

"We believe that there was/is norovirus in the community and in the schools in Farmington, and some kids were getting sick once they get to the camp," Schultz said. "Kids are not getting sick from the camp."

Melstad said the camp's basic clean-up procedure is the same whether an illness originates at camp or someone brings a virus with them: Staff members bleach and disinfect the contaminated area.

Since illness affected two groups of students, staff cleaned the cabins, bathrooms and dining hall. Common areas were disinfected as well -- twice. On Friday, A-1 cleaning service from Red Wing was also brought in for a fourth, intensive sanitization.

Pepin County Health Department is leading the investigation with cooperation from the YMCA as well as Minnesota and Wisconsin health departments. The initial findings indicate a few students were ill last week back in Farmington.

On Monday, a student threw up after getting off the bus.

"Our staff took care of the child. People didn't think much more of it until late Tuesday night," Melstad said. Then a couple dozen students became sick. The Y staff member who cleaned the first sick child also came down with the bug.

"We immediately called (Pepin County) Department of Health," Melstad said.

A Farmington School District nurse accompanies each group. The nurse and teachers decided to transport the kids home at their scheduled time Wednesday.

The next group arrived Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, several more students became sick.

A new school nurse staff consulted with other district nurses. A conference call with health officials resulted in students going home.

"They were concerned that Thursday night there could be an outbreak that might be difficult to manage," Melstad said. "They decided to go home and it made sense to me."

Noroviruses spread quickly, according to the Centers for Disease Control. You can get it by eating food or drinking liquids that are contaminated with the virus, touching surfaces or objects contaminated with norovirus and then putting your hand or fingers in your mouth, or having direct contact with an infected person.

Noroviruses are the most common cause of gastroenteritis in the United States, the CDC website notes. An estimate 20 million cases occur annually in the U.S. That means about 1 in every 15 Americans get a norovirus illness each year.

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Anne Jacobson
Anne Jacobson has been editor of the Republican Eagle since December 2003. 
(651) 301-7870
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