A St. Louis Park student has died of what the St. Louis Park School District identified as a “serious illness.”
Multiple media outlets reported Carly Christenson, a 14-year-old freshman at St. Louis Park High School, died Jan. 8 of influenza complications. Prior to her death, a WCCO report that contained an interview with Carly’s mother, Sandy Christenson, reported Carly had taken a flu vaccine but still became sick with the flu and was hospitalized at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota. She developed a serious staph infection, WCCO reported.
Claudia Miller, who works with vaccine-preventable diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health, said she could not discuss specific cases due to privacy regulations but said four individuals have died in Minnesota of flu-related complications this season. She said the department weekly reporting statistics would be updated to indicate five deaths Jan. 10.
Miller said some people without other health problems can still develop severe influenza for reasons that are not clear. Additionally, she said individuals with influenza become more susceptible to other infections. She added that influenza in itself “is a pretty severe illness.”
Buddy Ferguson, a risk communication specialist with the Minnesota Department of Health, added that “flu is most dangerous when people come down with a secondary infection, like pneumonia. Becoming severely ill with flu plus a secondary infection accounts for a lot of hospitalizations.”
On its website, the St. Louis Park School District posted Jan. 8, “The High School has learned that 9th grade student Carly Christenson passed away today after a serious illness. The High School is implementing its Crisis Response Plan and counselors, social workers, and other staff are available to meet with students as needed.”
The statement added that the district canceled all girls basketball home games Jan. 8. Carly played basketball at the high school.
The statement concluded, “The high school and entire school district send our thoughts and prayers to her family and friends. The school and district are unable to release any additional, specific information due to data privacy laws.”
A memorial service for Carly is scheduled 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12, at Westwood Lutheran Church, 9001 Cedar Lake Road in St. Louis Park. Visitation will take place at 2 p.m. Jan. 12 at the church. The family is requesting that memorials be donated to the Ronald McDonald House or the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
When reached for comment, Supt. Debra Bowers said, “I’m just so sad. My heart goes out to the family and friends of Carly.”
St. Louis Park School Board Chair Jim Yarosh said, “As a parent, it’s just close to home. For anyone who has kids in the district or anyone in the community, it’s just an awful thing, just a tragedy. It was hard to focus at work when I heard that.”
The district was aware of Carly’s illness prior to her death, Yarosh said. Administration officials contacted the Minnesota Department of Health and sought to implement their advice to reduce the spread of influenza.
“We try to act reasonably when it hits,” Yarosh said. “There’s just no telling who it’s going to hit or how or why.”
The Minnesota Department of Health is reporting more than 900 flu hospitalizations already this season. Miller said the numbers are rapidly changing. Outbreaks reported in long-term care facilities recently are the highest in “at least more than a decade,” Miller said.
Reports of influenza outbreaks in schools were lower than in long-term care facilities, but Miller said those numbers will likely increase as a result of school beginning again after winter breaks. She said schools should keep ill students at home for five to seven days.
“They really should be excluded until they are completely well, in part because the student can’t really participate in school until they are well and to prevent influenza from spreading,” she said. “Generally, they’re going to be really sick and in bed for a number of days and still infectious days after.”
The department does not ever recommend a school close to prevent the spread of influenza since children tend to congregate elsewhere, Miller said. However, sometimes schools do close if so many teachers or other school members become ill that education becomes difficult.
Ferguson also recommended older victims stay home if they suspect they have the flu.
“Out of deference to your coworkers, stay home if you are ill,” said Ferguson, who was following his own advice by working from home when contacted. “Do not indulge in what some people are calling presenteeism, being the stormtrooper who shows up for work even if ill. Stay home if you have respiratory problems.”
Miller and Ferguson also suggested individuals with the flu should cough into a tissue if a available and then throw away the tissue. If a tissue is not available, they should cough into a sleeve instead of their hands to prevent the virus from being spread on surfaces they touch. Flu victims should also wash their hands frequently, especially before they go to lunch.
Flu vaccinations can help prevent influenza but are not always effective, the health professionals said. Still, they recommended the shots.
“Flu shots are not 100 percent effective,” Ferguson said. “In fact, we and a lot of other people would like more work done on a more effective vaccine. But it does provide some protection, so by all means get a flu shot.”
Miller said the department does not routinely advise flu victims to visit a doctor unless they feel they cannot manage the symptoms at home or if they have underlying health problems that make them particularly vulnerable.
“If you just have the flu and it can be managed at home, there probably isn’t much benefit in going to the doctor,” she said.
However, she added the department did not want to necessarily discourage people from visiting a doctor, either. Antiviral agents can be used in “really high-risk situations,” Miller said. The antiviral agents do not cure the flu but can minimize the illness.
The department states that high-risk groups for influenza are people age 65 and older, young children, pregnant women, people with health conditions like asthma, diabetes and heart disease and African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.